Transfer of military technologies: Imitation

Messerschmitt Me262A-1A Schwalbe

Conquest is not the only route through which war disseminates technology. War and preparation for war also encourage societies to imitate one another’s promising military technologies. Often enough, imitation of a military innovation requires assimilation of a whole new set of technologies with both civilian and military applications. In this way, copying swords may require learning to build plowshares. There are several ways in which military technologies developed by one society can spread to others. These include secondary use, simple observation, voluntary technology transfers, reverse engineering, and espionage.

Of course, several of these avenues of diffusion do not require warfare. Commercial competitors often imitate one another’s products and even engage in industrial espionage to ferret out one another’s secrets. In many cases, however, there is resistance on the part of established interests, both military and civilian, to the introduction of new ideas and new technologies that threaten the existing order and their power and prominence in it. Established nineteenth-century physicians disputed the germ theory of disease as early twentieth-century physicists resisted the idea of quantum theory. Peacetime navies commanded by battleship admirals denied the value of aircraft carriers that, among other things, would enhance the power of their rivals within the navy. American auto executives in the 1960s were confident that the huge, gas-guzzling vehicles upon which their careers and profits had been built would always rule the road and dismissed Japanese auto engineering innovations. The list of examples is endless.

War, however, puts enormous pressure on societies to identify and assimilate useful innovations. Though it offers no guarantee that innovation will prevail, in war, the penalty for failing to acquire and learn to use important new technologies or modes of organization can be quite severe. Hence, in wartime, the objections of established interests to innovation are more likely to be brushed aside as detrimental to a society’s chances of survival. War-driven acceptance of innovation takes many forms. During World War II, for example, Joseph Stalin decided it was better to follow the example of other armies and reduced the power of the Red Army’s political officers while increasing the authority of the army’s professional soldiers to make tactical decisions. Apparently Comrade Stalin disagreed with the slogan of America’s post-war peace movement and decided it was not better to be “red than dead.”

The most obvious and, perhaps, most common vehicle of military technological diffusion is what might be termed secondary use. This term simply refers to one state or society acquiring and using weapons built by another. The method of acquisition might be theft, purchase, or even battlefield scavenging. For instance, as I noted previously, long before they were fully conquered, some indigenous North American tribes acquired and became quite proficient in the use of firearms. Sometimes they purchased these weapons from traders; sometimes they were issued weapons in exchange for service in the US military; in some instances, they acquired them through raids and theft. Whatever the precise mode of acquisition, this form of secondary use represented a very limited transfer of technology. Indigenous tribesmen learned how to fire weapons but lacked the technological base from which to actually build firearms and produce ammunition for them. Generally speaking, the wider the technological gulf between the recipient and source of military technology transfers, the more likely that the transfer will be limited to secondary use.

This principle usually holds true in the case of a major source of secondary use today, namely, arms sales. The United States sells tens of billions of dollars of arms every year, mainly to nations in the Middle East and Asia. Most of America’s Middle Eastern customers, Saudi Arabia in particular, have little in the way of manufacturing capability, much less a sophisticated arms industry. These recipients of American arms are dependent upon the United States for maintenance, spare parts, and ammunition, hence the transfer of technology is very minor. America’s Asian customers, on the other hand, most notably Japan and Taiwan, have very large and sophisticated manufacturing bases and could probable copy the American weapons they purchase. These nations are, however, constrained from so doing by agreements with the United States, as well as a calculation that it would be too expensive and politically risky to build the most sophisticated weapons in their own factories. While the Japanese and Taiwanese undoubtedly examine and are capable of reverse-engineering the aircraft and antimissile systems they purchase, the actual technology transfer is limited.

Whenever weapons are sold to a technologically sophisticated customer, however, there is a risk that the weapons transfer will not be limited to secondary use but will rather be reverse-engineered so that their secondary users learn the principles required to build them. Israel, for example, had sufficient technological capability to reverse-engineer the weapons it purchased from the United States and other suppliers and to use them as the foundations of its own arms industry. According to press reports, Israel routinely makes use of the underlying technologies of weapons it purchases from the United States. Of course, to build a modern arms industry, the Israelis also had to develop the ability to manufacture sophisticated computer and electronic components, and today Israel boasts an enormous number of technologically advanced start-up firms that serve both the military and civilian markets. In this way, the transfer of military and civilian technology went far beyond the narrow secondary use that might have been intended by Israel’s arms suppliers.

In some instances, nations have been able to purchase weapons, components, and plans on the international arms market from third-party suppliers. Such purchases often circumvent any restrictions that might have been place to prevent secondary users to build their own weapons. Indeed, in several cases, nations seeking to acquire modern arms technology have purchased American or other Western firms in possession of such know-how. The Chinese have sought to buy American technology firms. The Iranians, it has recently emerged, were able to acquire a factory in Germany that had the ability to manufacture components that might have been useful in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Of course, one might say that there is nothing new here. Nineteenth-century British and German arms manufacturers sold their wares and their nations’ technologies to the United States and any other nation that could pay for them.

Reverse-engineering has been an important element in the dissemination of military technologies. Unlike simple secondary use, reverse-engineering requires a level of technology similar to that of the society that produced the weapon or weapons system in the first place. The new user must be able to grasp the engineering principles represented by the weapon and possess an industrial base capable of producing copies of the weapon. Thus, the extent to which basic technology is actually transferred may be militarily important but limited in scope. Often-cited examples of reverse-engineered weapons include the Soviet Tu-4 bomber, which was directly copied from the American B-29 bomber. The Soviets had a chance to closely examine the B-29 during World War II when several American planes on missions over Japan developed problems and landed on Soviet territory. Similarly, the Soviet K-13/R-3S air-to-air missile was a reverse-engineered version of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder. The Soviets were able to examine the American missile after one fired by a Taiwanese fighter hit a Chinese MIG without exploding. Today, Iran claims to have reverse-engineered the American Predator drone and to have produced its own version of the American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has proven to be a useful weapon in America’s arsenal.

Again, while reverse-engineering can be militarily useful, the actual extent to which technology can be transferred in this way is limited. Only those who already possess a level of technology sufficient to understand the principles embodied by the weapon and to build factories capable of making their own versions can benefit from reverse-engineering. A Predator drone somehow captured by a tribal group in the jungles of South America would not offer much in the way of benefits to them.

Another very common vehicle for the diffusion of military technologies is simple observation. One nation, observing a potentially useful weapon or weapons system fielded by others, may endeavor to build its own version of the weapon. Like reverse-engineering, imitation—though an important form of flattery—is not a particularly powerful instrument of technology diffusion. Weapons can only be copied by societies whose own level of technology is comparable to that of the society that produced the weapon. Thus, copying is more likely to diffuse weapons than engineering skill or scientific understanding. Take the case of naval power in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe.

Political scientist Michael Horowitz writes that during the first half of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the world’s dominant naval power—a dominance based upon heavily armed, wooded-hulled sailing ships. However, the British observed the launch of a new French ironclad, steam-powered vessel, La Gloire, whose armor was capable of withstanding British gunfire. When the British also analyzed reports of the clash between the Monitor and Merrimack in America’s Civil War, they quickly shifted their production of warships first to iron and then to steel. The use of these materials and steam rather than wind power allowed the construction of warships much larger than any that had been built before and permitted their builders to mount huge guns with rotating turrets on the vessels’ decks. Indeed, the new guns, with their own armored turrets, were too heavy to be mounted at a ship’s sides and had to be installed midship, and ships redesigned to remove obstacles to the rotation of their turrets. The construction and deployment of these ships required changes in naval organization and methods of training, the development of new technologies in the production of steel, as well as the development of turbine engines capable of powering the enormous battleships and battlecruisers introduced by the Royal Navy in the early years of the twentieth century.

The 1906 launch of the HMS Dreadnaught, followed by a series of other powerful warships, as well as the reorganization of the Royal Navy’s tactics emphasizing battle fleets of auxiliary vessels organized around capital ships, was closely observed by the world’s other maritime powers—including in particular Germany and Japan. Many maritime powers halted their naval construction programs while they considered how to best respond to the British innovations. Several of these states possessed adequate levels of technology, as well as the organizational and financial capabilities, to imitate the British and proceeded to do so. Germany, for example, concluded that the new British warships represented a significant change in naval warfare that rendered existing vessels and fleets obsolete. Germany possessed a large and modern steel industry as well as the industrial infrastructure to build powerful warships on the British model. German military planners, moreover, had little difficulty understanding the organizational and tactical changes introduced by the British and adapted them for their own use.

In a similar vein, Japan was eager to imitate the Royal Navy’s new warships and tactics. In its efforts to build a modern navy following Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit, Japan had adopted the British Navy as a model for its own ships and tactics. For a half century, Japan had worked to build an industrial base that would allow it to compete with the West. By the turn of the century, Japan possessed an adequate level of technology to copy the new British warships. What the Japanese were not able to do for themselves, the British were more than happy to do for them. Britain viewed Japan as a counterweight to its rival Russia and encouraged Japanese naval modernization, selling the Japanese ships, large-caliber naval guns, and technologies and helping Japan to organize its own naval academy modeled on the British naval academy at Dartmouth. The Japanese were, as a result, able to quickly copy the new British warships and assimilate the British naval tactics designed to make best use of the ships. Ironically, of course, within a few years the Japanese used their new navy to attempt to drive the British from Southeast Asia.

Dissemination by observation was also important in the case of the tank. Tanks were introduced by Great Britain toward the end of World War I. The British believed that tracked, armored vehicles had the potential to penetrate heavily defended German trenches and pave the way for successful infantry assaults. Though early British tanks were slow and cumbersome and prone to mechanical breakdowns, it was evident to all sides that the tank could become a formidable weapon. The Germans decided to copy the British tanks but did so in a desultory manner until the British offensive of 1918, in which large numbers of improved British tanks, attacking in waves, were able to achieve decisive breakthroughs and penetrated deep behind the German lines. Watching their defense lines crushed by massed British armor convinced the Germans that the tank was, indeed, a powerful weapon. This realization came too late to affect the outcome of the war, since Germany soon capitulated, but it was to have a profound impact on German planning for the next war.

After the Versailles Treaty was signed, the army of the new German republic was severely limited in size and weaponry and could build no tanks. The Germans circumvented this restriction by entering into an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviet military, too, had been impressed with reports of the power of British armor and, indeed, during the Russian Civil War, had faced a small number of tanks fielded by the White Russian Army. After the Communist victory, Soviet officers had studied theories of armored warfare and very much wished to copy British tanks, but Soviet factories lacked the technological capability to build modern tanks. The Germans proposed a deal. The two nations would collaborate on tank design, with the Germans providing technical assistance for tanks that would be built in the USSR. Officers from both nations would train in a tank school established in the Soviet city of Kazan.

From this beginning, the German and Soviet armies both developed powerful tanks and doctrines of armored warfare emphasizing what the Germans would call blitzkrieg, or lightning war, and the Russians would call “deep battle.” In both cases, the emphasis was on the use of massed tank formations to break through, envelop, and cut off enemy forces with infantry following to exploit the armored advances. Initially, the Germans and Soviets both copied British tank designs. Gradually, however, they introduced improvements, but, of course, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, this episode of German–Soviet cooperation came to an end. Within a few years, tank officers who had trained together at Kazan faced one another in battle. Interestingly, the Germans had provided the technical expertise in the 1920s but by the 1940s the Soviets had learned to build better tanks, including the T-34, generally thought to have been the best tank of the war. Indeed, the Germans found themselves copying the armor from the T-34 for their own tanks.

Again, successful imitation requires a level of technology similar to that possessed by the nation whose weapons are being imitated and is, as a result, not the most robust mechanism of technology transfer. British tanks were easily copied by the Germans and Russians. Germany and Japan, along with the United States and, to a lesser extent, France, Italy, and Russia, were able to copy British naval innovations. These nations already possessed the level of technology needed to build British-style battleships and battle cruisers and, once shown an example, imitated it with relative ease. Those who did not possess the technological ability already could not copy the ships.

This limitation is not true in the case of a fourth form of imitation—voluntary technology transfer. Technology transfer differs from, say, arms sales, insofar as the donor or seller provides not only finished weapons but also donates or sells the technology needed to manufacture and maintain the weapons. This sort of sale or donation involves a more substantial transfer of technology than the simple sale or donation of the weapons themselves. Understanding the technology may allow the recipient to move forward scientifically or technologically and move on to produce other civilian and military products that might previously have been beyond their reach. Such transfers take place for a number of reasons and, despite frequent efforts on the part of technology-rich nations to prevent their technological assets from being acquired by others, such flows are difficult to control. In some instances, nations are willing to share military technology with their allies in order to promote its use against their enemies. As noted above, in the early twentieth century, Great Britain shared naval technology, including plans for the construction of modern warships, with Japan as part of its effort to blunt Russian power. This transfer of technologies is a classical case of a tactic that seemed to be a good idea at the time, but was discovered out later to have been rather problematic.

In other cases, a transfer of technology involves civilian technologies that turn out to have military uses. Take, for example, the enormous transfer of American manufacturing technology to the Soviet Union that took place before and during World War II. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet leadership was quite conscious of the fact that the USSR’s level of industrial development was far behind that of Western Europe and the United States. Always fearing attack from the capitalist West, the USSR was especially anxious to develop its armaments industries. Accordingly, the USSR contracted with American industrial firms to build plants such as the Kama River truck factory, in which Soviet engineers learned how to build modern trucks—a skill set that transferred quite easily to the manufacture of military vehicles.

Today, the United States seeks to monitor and prevent the transfer of technologies with military potential. In practice, such transfers take place every week. American corporations often sell technological know-how to foreign purchasers. These corporations usually claim to have been unaware that the technology had military applications. In 2011, for example, the United Technologies Corporation, a major American defense contractor, paid a $75 million fine for selling engine-control software to China that the Chinese used to build that nation’s first military attack helicopter. The firm’s Pratt and Whitney subsidiary had initially claimed to be unaware that the software had potential military uses, but then acknowledged that some of its executives had made false statements to the government when denying the allegation.

In some instances, foreign governments will demand a transfer of technology as a condition for purchasing American products. In a recent case, Brazil threatened to purchase military aircraft elsewhere if the United States continued to impose restrictions on technology transfers. Brazil wanted to sell twenty-four aircraft containing US-built components to Venezuela. The components had been sold to Brazil with the stipulation that they could not be transferred to a third nation. Brazil declared that if the United States refused to lift this restriction, it would award a fighter plane contract worth as much as $7 billion to a French or Swedish company rather than an American firm.

A recent case of voluntary technology transfer poses grave dangers. Nuclear technology developed in Pakistan was sold to both North Korea and Iran. The technology was sold by prominent Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan, possibly with the connivance of some Pakistani officials. North Korea has tested an atomic bomb it was able to develop with the help of Khan’s information, and Iran is making every effort to build its own nuclear weapon. Iran asserts that it seeks nuclear technology for peaceful uses, while North Korea enjoys threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. In all likelihood, both states are lying.

The Khan case also illustrates another common factor in voluntary technology transfer—the internationalization of scientific training. Every year, American and European universities train thousands of scientists and engineers in the most advanced technologies. Some of these individuals remain in the countries where they received their training, but the majority return home with the skills they have acquired. Abdul Khan, for example, was trained in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In the Netherlands, Khan had access to documents concerning gas centrifuge technology, an important element in the fabrication of nuclear bombs. Of course, America’s own atomic bomb was originally devised by scientists trained in Germany. No doubt, engineers trained in the Roman army later built ballistae for the Goths.

Finally, there is the matter of espionage. Since ancient times, nations have relied upon spies to inform them of one another’s plans and capabilities. One important form of espionage is collection of information on the use and manufacture of weapons. In some instances, espionage has provided information that allowed one or another nation to copy complex weapons systems that it might not easily have been able to develop on its own. In the 1940s, for example, Soviet spy rings penetrated American security and copied the plans and designs for American nuclear weapons. This intelligence coup allowed the Soviet Union to build an atomic bomb years earlier than its scientists and engineers might have been able to construct such a weapon on their own.

In recent years, China has been quite active in the realm of technological espionage. Chinese agents allegedly were able to acquire microwave submarine detection technology, space-based intercept systems, electromagnetic artillery systems, submarine torpedoes, aircraft carrier electronic systems, and various other military technologies. Recently, a Chinese citizen, Sixing Liu, was sentenced to seventy months in federal prison for attempting to transfer information about the “disk resonator gyroscope,” a device that allows drones, missiles, and rockets to hit targets without satellite guidance, to the Chinese military. Liu was employed by US defense contractor L-3 Communications, where he had access to the gyroscope. Similarly, Chi Mak, another L-3 employee, was convicted of passing information on the navy’s quiet drive submarine propulsion technology to China, while another Chinese agent was convicted of acquiring American microwave submarine detection technology for China.

Of course, China is not the only nation that uses covert means to acquire American military technology. In recent years, Russian agents have been accused of attempting to export US military equipment and technology, and a number of Iranian agents have been apprehended seeking to obtain American technology and hardware for Iran’s military and nuclear programs.

Mid twentieth-century Soviet atom spies generally had to physically obtain or photograph documents and components. While this traditional form of espionage continues to be important, today’s spying also includes cyberattacks on computer systems that store useful military and technological information. In recent years, computer attacks, mainly originating in China, have targeted a number of American defense firms, including Northrop Grumman, whose computer systems contain valuable information on American military systems. What, if any, technology was transferred through these attacks has not been made public.


War and preparation for war provide nations with a powerful incentive to identify and copy one another’s useful military technologies. Whatever form such imitation takes, with the exception of simple secondary use, imitation of a foreign military innovation may allow—or indeed, require—learning and assimilating whole new sets of technologies with both military and civilian applications. As I observed earlier, copying swords may teach societies how to build plowshares.

Take the case of jet propulsion. Work on jet engines had been undertaken in Britain, France, and Germany during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, German industrialist Ernst Heinkel saw the possibility of attaching a jet engine to an airplane. Along with an engine designed Hans von Ohain, Heinkel built the He 178, the world’s first jet plane. With subsequent technical improvements, the Germans were able to build the world’s first jet fighter, the Me 262, which entered combat in 1944. The Messerschmitt jet could attain a top speed of about 550 miles per hour, which was more than 150 miles per hour faster than conventional Allied fighter aircraft. The Me 262 was quite successful in downing Allied bombers, particularly after the introduction of a two-seat version with radar gave it an enhanced ability to fly and fight at night.

The Me 262 was introduced too late in the war to have any appreciable effect. Other air forces encountering the German jet fighter, though, recognized its clear superiority to piston engine aircraft, as well as to the British Gloster Meteor, a somewhat more primitive jet fighter developed by the British. Accordingly, Allied forces made every effort to capture an Me 262 for study, hoping to copy its design and technology. The US Army Air Force had created an intelligence effort dubbed “Operation Lusty,” tasked with acquiring German aircraft and weapons technologies. No Me 262, though, was captured until the end of the war, when both the Americans and Soviets were able to seize a number of the jets in fairly good condition. The United States shipped nine of the Me 262s, along with other German equipment, to an airfield in Newark, New Jersey for study. There the German planes were reverse-engineered and immediately became the basis for America’s jet fighter and jet bomber programs.

Within a few years, of course, jet engines were being used to power commercial airliners. With improvements in their power, reliability, and fuel efficiency, they soon replaced piston engines on most large civilian aircraft. The jet engine has dramatically shortened flight times and reduced the costs associated with travel and commerce. Copying the sword produced a very important plowshare. Of course, jet technology had been under development before the war and had not been exclusively intended for military purposes. This point, however, raises the larger issue of how technology is transferred between civilian and military uses, a question to which we shall now turn.


Spanish 60-gun Heavy Escorts

SLR0436; Warship (1730-40); Spanish; 60 guns, stern view

While the Royal Navy stagnated in the age of the establishments, the French and Spanish were building bigger and better ships. In style this model of a Spanish ship has much in common with British practice, and British shipwrights were employed in the Spanish dockyards, especially Irish Roman Catholics who were forbidden employment under the British crown. The decoration however is rather different, with a horse as figurehead and a heavy carving on each quarter of the stern. This model cannot be positively identified but it bears an eagle and snake on the stern, from the coat of arms of Mexico. It may be the Spanish 60-gun ship Nueva Espana, built in Havana in 1740. It has oar ports between the lower deck gunports, a feature only found on much smaller British ships, but one which might have proved useful in the lighter winds of the Mediterranean, where it might still be necessary to fight galleys in calm weather.

The increase of European corsair attacks on the Spanish West Indies and Main (north coast of South America) from the 1520s required improved defensive measures, but especially from the 1540s when American shipping peaked during the richest discoveries of silver in Peru. These attacks, in peacetime and war, transcended international law just as the religious struggles of the Mediterranean did, especially as Spain in the late 1530s forbade foreign entry into American waters. The Spanish crown thus had to accept, reluctantly, the realization that local militias, inadequate fortifications and private armed patrols in the Caribbean were no substitute for regular, systematic transatlantic convoys, escorted by regular navy galleons and protected at the points of departure and arrival by permanent coastal patrols of galleys and small sailing warships. Such a system took several decades to evolve and in the face of perhaps 100 enemy corsairs operating yearly-70 off Spain and 30 in the Caribbean. Between 1535 and 1546, most of the attacks occurred off the Atlantic coast of Spain, and the colonists in America generally had to fend for themselves. But the arrival of many corsairs on plundering as well as smuggling ventures in the Caribbean during the 1550s caused the crown to experiment with countermeasures that became permanent after 1560. These came in the form of direct government regulation of Spanish America’s maritime defenses, embodied in an annual escorted convoy sporadically from 1553 and permanently from the 1560s. The major tool became the escort for this convoy, the Armada Real, two to twelve galleons, created in 1568 and commanded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Two plate (silver) convoys sailed annually, the spring voyage to the Antilles and Vera Cruz, the late summer expedition to Cartagena on the Spanish Main and Nombre de Dios at the Isthmus of Panama. Both wintered in the Caribbean, then rendezvoused at Havana the following March for the return voyage to Seville.

Expensive though the Armada Real was, it achieved for Philip II the desired effect of acting as a deterrent to corsair attacks on the plate fleets. To be sure, the Real could not stop corsair depredations of coastal settlements, especially as they intensified along the Spanish Main from the late 1560s. French, English and Dutch even began to cooperate in common cause against the Spanish imperial monopoly, sometimes in small squadrons of twelve ships or more off the Spanish coast and in the Caribbean. Such dangers could only be thwarted by largely ineffective galley patrols in both places, or by more successful Spanish and (from 1552) Portuguese galleons between the Iberian coast and the forward island base in the Azores. The Ottoman naval offensive of the 1560s also brought Turkish and Barbary corsairs in squadrons of six galliots or more into the Atlantic to join in the assault. Indeed, a Turkish corsair squadron entered the anchorage of Cadiz during the late summer of 1568 and burned three of Menendez de Aviles’ original twelve galleons preparing for the first sortie of the Armada Real. But the Moslem danger diminished as the Ottomans pulled back to their Central Mediterranean defense perimeter during the 1570s, and the Armada Real assumed its permanent escort role. Even following Menendez’ departure to lead an expedition against Holland in 1574 (when he died), the system continued with unqualified success for over two centuries. Stragglers from the convoy occasionally fell prey to corsairs, but the Armada Real was rarely intercepted by any formidable enemy force over the ensuing decades, the first time not coming until 1628.

Looking for something else, I recently found the following in ‘Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy’ by John D. Harbron (it documents the Spanish SOL from early 18th Century) about the armament of early Spanish SOLs:

4th Rate and fast sailer, 60 Gun Ship (Service Year 1717)–24 x 18#, 26 x 12#, 10 x 6#

Harbron indicates that the these 60’s were not designed to fight in a line of battle against the capital ships of their time but were heavy escorts, intended to defeat British and French privateers and pirates in the Caribbean and elsewhere. They were used to escort the Gold and Silver convoys from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to Spain. One voyage was also made during the early 1730s around the Cape of Horn to the Pacific to escort in the great Manila galleons.  This was only on their last leg of sailing into Panama.

Manila Galleons: what a target for your large well organised Pirate! Alas somewhat out of the league your average pirate, as would be the Spanish convoys escorted by those special anti-pirate 60-gunners.

Nostra Senora de Covandonga 50-guns 1731-1743

Nostra Senora del Pilar de Zaragoza 50-guns 1732-1750

This is from an article published in Warship 1991 ‘The Last Manila Galleon’ In the article they describe the last Spanish Galleon’s that sailed between Manila in the Philippines across the Pacific to Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico.

One of the last Manila Galleon’s were the Covandonga captured by Anson in 1743, the Pilar which broke up on the voyage to Acapulco in 1750 and the ships built to replace Covandonga and Pilar at Manila the

Nuestra Senora del Rosario y los Santos Reyes 60-guns 1746-1762

Santisima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora del Buen Fin 70-guns 1750-1762

These were enormous ships; Rosario was 188 ft overall with 156 ft keel, 56 ft beam, and a 26 ft depth in hold and was pierced for 60 guns the Santisima Trinidad was even larger. For comparison the Spanish navy at that time had designed a 60 gun 4th rate as the best ship for their needs, these commonly measured 143 ft in length and 39 ft in breadth.

The Rosario and Santisima Trinidad were terrible sailers; they had enormous upper works and could only sail in a following wind. In 1756 Santisima Trinidad took over 7 months to make the voyage from Manila to Mexico, 82 passengers died on the voyage including the former governor of the Philippines returning to Spain.


Navío Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, 50-guns 1732-1750. A Manila Galleon of the eighteenth century.

Pacific Routes-Manila Galleons

After the discovery of a sea route from the Philippines to Mexico in 1565, the Spanish began employing a highly profitable, though dangerous, trade route. Ships especially outfitted to carry large cargoes set sail from Acapulco, carrying silver mined in the Americas, and headed to Manila, where the metal was exchanged for Chinese silks, porcelains, and ivory, as well as for fragrant goods from the Spice Islands and jewels from Burma, Ceylon, and Siam. The galleons then returned the much sought-after Asian goods back to Acapulco, where they were carried overland to Mexico City and then sent across the Atlantic to Spain. The first Manila galleon set sail for Acapulco in 1573.

Twice each year the Spaniards dispatched the fabled Manila galleon from Acapulco with silver bullion bound across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands, claimed by Spain upon their discovery by Ferdinando Magellan in 1521. On its return passage the galleon found the favorable westerlies at the latitude of Japan and then sailed down the California coast with the current to Mexico, bringing back rich cargoes of silk goods. Spain’s Atlantic trade was also highly regulated. A fleet of vessels sailed from Spain to the Caribbean each spring and returned home the following winter. Spanish naval vessels protected the flota, as it was called, from the warships and privateers of European rivals as well as from the pirates who infested the Caribbean and Bahamian waters. Fortified harbors at Cartegena on the Spanish Main and Havana on the island of Cuba gave further shelter to the fleet. In 1565 Spain had also established a settlement in Florida at St. Augustine to protect the strategic Straits of Florida, through which its plate fleet sailed on its passage home late each winter.

Whereas the wind-aided passage from Acapulco to Manila took only eight to ten weeks, the return trip from Manila to Acapulco took between four and six months. Navigating the treacherous Philippine archipelago with an overloaded galleon often took over a month, and many ships that did not complete the journey before typhoon season began perished in the rough weather. Because the profits from the Manila galleon trade averaged 30 to 50 percent, adequate provisions were often rejected in favor of loading more goods on the galleons. Consequently, many ships saw 30 to 40 percent of their crews perish, with losses of 75 percent not uncommon in some years. Despite these risks, however, the Manila galleon trade continued for nearly 250 years, remaining an important source of income for Spanish merchants.

In the absence of any other centre of settlement in the whole Pacific, the Manila galleons were the only lifeline between New Spain and the Philippines. With the whole economy of Spanish Manila depending on them, they braved the winds and made the voyage once every year from Acapulco to Manila, and back again to Acapulco. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, as many as three or four ships might sail together. In 1593 the Spanish government, responding to years of protests from traders both in America and in the peninsula, restricted the sailings to two ships a year, with a limit on the amount of goods they could carry. Later, in 1720, a decree established that two ships should be the rule, though it remained normal for only one ship to do the crossing.

The sailings were unique in world history. The first galleon crossed the Pacific in 1565, the last sailed in 1815: for two and a half centuries the ships maintained, almost without a break, their perilous and lonely voyage across the vast ocean. Vessels sailed from Cavite in Manila Bay in June or July, helped by the monsoon winds out of the southwest. They drifted for five or more months across the Pacific. When they arrived in Acapulco a fair was held at which the goods were traded. At Acapulco they loaded up with silver and passengers, then returned in March to catch the northeast trade winds back across the Pacific.

The trip from Manila was the ‘longest continuous navigation in the world’, lasting an average of six months, though there were ships that did not make it in less than nine. The voyage was always accompanied by high mortality, without counting the extreme risk from storms. A witness in Mexico reported how one vessel, the Mora, ‘left China on the first of July 1588 and arrived in Acapulco on the third of February, after forty-three people had died on the voyage’. There were many terrible cases, like the Santa Margarita in 1600 which was beaten about by storms and in eight months was only able to reach the Marianas, by which time a mere fifty of the two hundred and sixty on board had survived; of the survivors all were killed by natives save one who escaped to tell the tale. In 1603 the San Antonio, which carried the richest cargo known till that date, as well as many of the Spanish élite fleeing from the Chinese uprising in Manila, was simply swallowed up by the sea somewhere out in the Pacific. In 1657 one ship reached Acapulco after more than twelve months at sea: all on board were dead. Laden with fabulous treasure and the coveted prey of all, the vessels succumbed to the enemy only four times and always to the English: in 1587, 1709, 1743 and 1762. Many more, unfortunately, to a total of well over thirty, fell foul of storms or simply disappeared at sea. The return from Acapulco was shorter, an average of four months.

The conditions of life on so long a crossing are fully documented by an Italian apothecary, Francesco Gemelli, who made the voyage in 1697:

There is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings, besides the terrible shocks from side to side caused by the furious beating of the waves. The ship swarms with little vermin bred in the biscuit, so swift that in a short time they not only run over cabins, beds and the very dishes the men eat upon, but fasten upon the body. Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts. In every mouthful of food there went down an abundance of maggots. On fish days the common diet was rank old fish boiled in water and salt; at noon we had kidney beans, in which there were so many maggots that they swam at the top of the broth.

Lend-Lease to the USSR

American Lend-Lease supplies to the USSR 1941–45.

Soviet historiography is mocked in the West, where it is seen purely as a propaganda exercise. By way of example, take Lend-Lease. Soviet texts downplay its importance, if they mention it at all. English-language histories credit it with saving the Soviet Union from defeat, bandying about words like “decisive” and “critical”. The truth lies in between these extremes — in the fighting in late 1941, the presence of British-supplied Hurricanes and Tomahawks made a difference around Leningrad and Moscow. The presence of Spitfires and Airacobras helped the VVS defeat the Luftwaffe over Kuban. The Studebaker truck was an important tool for the Red Army. The aluminum and other alloys, the metallurgic technology, the locomotives, the radios and other smaller items, the foodstuffs, all these items helped to strengthen the USSR in their struggle against Germany and her Allies. There is no question. But to state bluntly that without them the USSR would have collapsed is simply untrue, and this is the perspective most often put forward in English-speaking lands. The USSR is/was a great country, with enormous resources, and the Russian people are among the most resilient in the world. With or without Lend-Lease, Germany would sooner or later have been defeated, simply because such a small country could never sustain a war against one so large and so wealthy. The Second World War was a war of attrition, and Germany simply did not have the resources to outlast the USSR. Once German troops were stopped before Moscow, it was only a question of time.

In the final phase of the war, however, the Soviet army was able to move to a conduct of operations that was very close to the concepts that had been defined in P.U. 36: Soviet Field Regulations. It was able to do so for one basic reason the mechanization of the logistic facilities of its seven armored and mechanized armies. This was made possible by U.S.  Lend-Lease, U.S. factories and shipping being responsible for the supply of some 420,000 four-wheel-drive trucks, which put the Soviet army on wheels. The scale of this effort can be understood when it is remembered that this total was greater than the number of motor vehicles in Britain in 1939, and the United Kingdom was second only to the United States in terms of automobile production. Where, however, the concept of Deep Battle continued to elude the Soviet army was in the lack of overall mechanization, since the vast majority of Soviet infantry remained on foot and hoof, of a genuine deep-strike air force, and of adequate airborne forces. As a result the Soviet army, like the German army, was unbalanced, with quality concentrated and narrowly based. Its success in the final period of the war was much to do with superiority of numbers and technique.

The most serious gap in the Soviet armoury at the start of the war was in radio communication and intelligence. In the early months of war there were desperate shortages of radio equipment, which made effective command and control of large numbers of aircraft and tanks impossible and made it difficult to hold together a regular infantry division. And when radio was used German interceptors caught the messages and dispatched air or tank strikes against the unfortunate command post that had relayed them. Soviet commanders soon grew uncomfortable with using radio once they realized it could betray their whereabouts. The system was disrupted in the fast-moving defensive battles of 1941 and 1942, as one communications post after another was overrun by the enemy. The effort to provide effective communication in 1942 was central to the final successes of Soviet mass operations in 1943 and 1944.

It could not have been achieved without supplies from the United States and the British Commonwealth. Under the Lend-Lease agreements drawn up with America and Britain in 1941, the Soviet Union was supplied with 35,000 radio stations, 380,000 field telephones and 956,000 miles of telephone cable. The air force was able by 1943 to establish a network of radio control stations about one and a half miles behind the front, from which aircraft could be quickly directed to targets on the battlefield. Tank armies used the new radios to hold the tank units together, increasing their fighting effectiveness by the simplest of innovations. Finally, the Red Army began to organize its own radio interception service in 1942. By 1943 five specialized radio battalions had been raised; their function was to listen in on German radio, jam their frequencies and spread disinformation over the air waves. In the battles of summer 1943 the battalions claimed to have reduced the transmission of German operational radiograms by two-thirds. In the last years of the war Soviet signals-intelligence underwent an exceptional and necessary improvement. The systems for evaluating intelligence from radio interception, spies and air reconnaissance were overhauled by the spring of 1943, and a much clearer picture of German dispositions and intentions could be constructed. Moreover, radio came to play a major part in the evolution of sophisticated tactics of deception and disinformation, which on numerous occasions left the enemy quite unable even to guess the size, the whereabouts or the intentions of Soviet forces.

It was true that the quantity of armaments sent was not great when compared with the remarkable revival of Soviet mass production. The raw statistics show that Western aid supplied only 4 per cent of Soviet munitions over the whole war period, but the aid that mattered did not come in the form of weapons. In addition to radio equipment the United States supplied more than half a million vehicles: 77,900 jeeps, 151,000 light trucks and over 200,000 Studebaker army trucks. One-third of all Soviet vehicles came from abroad and were generally of higher quality and durability, though most came in 1943 and 1944. At the time of Stalingrad only 5 per cent of the Soviet military vehicle park came from imported stocks. Imports, however, gave the Red Army supply system a vital mobility that was by 1944 better than the enemy’s. The Studebaker became a favourite with the Soviet forces. The letters ‘USA’ stencilled on the side were translated as ‘Ubit sukina syna Adolfa’ – ‘to kill that son-of-a-bitch Adolf!’ The list of other supplies, equally vital to the Soviet supply effort, is impressive – 57.8 per cent of aviation fuel requirements, 53 per cent of all explosives, almost half the wartime supply of copper, aluminium and rubber tyres. Arguably the most decisive contribution was supplies for the strained Soviet rail network, much of which was in the occupied areas in 1941. From America came not only 56.6 per cent of all the rails used during the war but 1,900 locomotives to supplement the meagre Soviet output of just 92, and 11,075 railway cars to add to the 1,087 produced domestically. Almost half the supplies, by weight, came in the form of food, enough to provide an estimated half-pound of concentrated nourishment for every Soviet soldier, every day of the war. The shiny tins of Spam, stiff, pink compressed meat, were universally known as ‘second fronts’.

The provision of Lend-Lease supplies was slow in the early stages of the war, but from late 1942 it became a steady flow through the Soviet eastern provinces via Vladivostok, by the overland route from the Persian Gulf and the more dangerous and inhospitable convoy journeys from British ports to Murmansk or Archangel. Foreign aid on such a scale permitted the Soviet Union to concentrate its own production on the supply of battlefront equipment rather than on machinery, materials or consumer goods. Without Western aid, the narrower post-invasion economy could not have produced the remarkable output of tanks, guns and aircraft, which exceeded anything the wealthier German economy achieved throughout the war. Without the railway equipment, vehicles and fuel the Soviet war effort would almost certainly have foundered on poor mobility and an anaemic transport system. Without the technical and scientific aid – during the war 15,000 Soviet officials and engineers visited American factories and military installations technological progress in the Soviet Union would have come much more slowly. This is not to denigrate the extraordinary performance of the Soviet economy during the war, which was made possible only by the use of crude mass-production techniques, by skilful improvisation in planning and through the greater independence and initiative allowed plant managers and engineers. As a result of the improvements in production, the Red Army faced the German enemy in 1943 on more equal terms than at any time since 1941. The modernization of Soviet fighting power was an essential element in the equation. The gap in organization and technology between the two sides was narrowed to the point where the Red Army was prepared to confront German forces during the summer campaigning season in the sort of pitched battle of manoeuvre and firepower at which German commanders had hitherto excelled.

Soviet reaction to Allied aid during the war was mixed. While sending out extravagant shopping lists to the Western powers, the Soviet authorities complained constantly about delays in supply and the quality of some of the weaponry they were sent. Offers by British and American engineers and officers to follow up the deliveries with advice on how to use and repair the equipment were met with a stony refusal. It was true that aid deliveries were slow to materialize in the fifteen months after the promise was made in August of 1941, due partly to the difficulties in establishing effective supply lines, partly to the demands of America’s own rearmament. But neither Roosevelt nor Churchill were in any doubt that aid for the Soviet Union was vital to the anti-Axis coalition; they bore Soviet complaints without a serious rupture. When the first aid programme was finally settled in October 1941, Maxim Litvinov, by then the ambassador to Washington, leaped to his feet and shouted out, ‘Now we shall win the war!’ Yet after 1945 Lend-Lease was treated in the official Soviet histories of the war as a minor factor in the revival of Soviet fortunes. The story of Lend-Lease became a victim of the Cold War. Even in the late 1980s it was still a subject of which the regime would not permit open discussion. The significance of Western supplies for the Soviet war effort was admitted by Khrushchev in the taped interviews used for his memoirs, but the following passage was published only in the 1990s: ‘Several times I heard Stalin acknowledge [Lend-Lease] within the small circle of people around him. He said that… if we had had to deal with Germany one-to-one we would not have been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry.’ Marshal Zhukov, in a bugged conversation in 1963 whose contents were released only thirty years later, endorsed the view that without aid the Soviet Union ‘could not have continued the war’. All this was a far cry from the official history of the Great Patriotic War, which concluded that Lend-Lease was ‘in no way meaningful’ and had ‘no decisive influence’ on the outcome of the war.

The Soviet Union would not have been able to “fight their fight without allied support.”  However, the contribution of U. S. production and Lend-Lease to the Soviet effort has often been exaggerated.

“Left to their own devices,” as one contemporary source puts it, “Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht.” (David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, ‘When Titans Clashed’, 1995, p. 285)

Glantz and House noted (pp. 150-151, 285) the Soviet economy would have been more heavily burdened without Lend-Lease trucks, the implements of war, and raw materials including clothing.  Ultimately, the authors conclude, the result would have been the same, “except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches.”

The authors point out, Lend-Lease equipment did not arrive in sufficient quantities in 1941-42 to make a difference.  “That achievement must be attributed solely to the Soviet people and to the nerve of Stalin” and others.  Lend-Lease trucks enabled the Soviets to keep their mobile forces moving, especially after March 1943.  But combat vehicles and aircraft proved less satisfactory.  The Valentine and Matilda tank turrets could not be upgunned.  And the Soviets wanted close air support ground aircraft and low altitude fighters, not fighter interceptors and long-range bombers.

According to Glantz and House (p. 340 n1), from October1941 to May 1942 the Allies delivered 4700 aircraft and 2600 armored vehicles.  In 1941 and 1942, the Soviets produced 8200 and 21,700 combat aircraft respectively, as well as 4700 and 24,500 tanks.  The Soviets lost 17,900 aircraft in 1941 and 12,100 aircraft in 1942 while tank losses were 20,500 and 15,100 for those years. (p. 306).

By mid to late 1942 the 1500 factories moved east of the Urals between July and November 1941 were beginning to meet much of the Soviet Union’s needs. Standardization of equipment and increased use of labor, especially women and teenagers, allowed tank production for example to rise 38% over 1941. Industrial production in the Urals increased 180% in 1942 over 1940, 140% in Western Siberia, 200% in the Volga region, 36% in Eastern Siberia and 19% in Central Asia and Kazakstan. (Source: Colonel G. S. Kravchenko, specialist in military economics, History of the Second World War, 1973, pp. 975-980).

Kravchenko points out that the smallest amounts of deliveries came at the beginning, the hardest period of war while the second front had not yet been opened. Lend-Lease, while important in providing locomotives, rail wagons, jeeps, trucks, raw materials such as aluminum, machine tools, food and medical supplies, only accounted for 10% of tanks and 12% of aircraft. Soviet soldiers appreciated the 15 million pair of boots the U.S. provided.

According to Alexander Werth (Russia at War: 1941-1945) Lend-Lease contributed to the Soviet army’s diet and to its mobility.   Between June 1941 and April 1944, Werth states (p. 567), the US delivered 6430 planes, 3734 tanks and 210,000 automobiles; the British 5800 planes and 4292 tanks; the Canadians 1188 tanks and 842 armored cars.  Given the Soviet attrition rate, (June 1941 to June 1943 – 23,000 planes and 30,000 tanks – Werth – FN p. 610), Allied contributions hardly covered Soviet losses.

Stalin pressed the Allies more for a second front than for supplies in October 1941 as the Germans pressed on Moscow.  It must also be repeated that by the summer of 1942, German resources could not keep pace with demands, and an attack could only be mounted in the area of Army Group South.

No doubt statistics can be massaged to support any point of view.  Glantz correctly concludes that without Lend-Lease, Soviet offensives would have stalled at an earlier stage, and forward troops could not be supplied.  But the outcome was never in doubt.  That outcome would only have taken longer to achieve.

Here are some stats.

Lend-lease supplied the USSR with 1.9% of all artillery, 7% of all tanks, 13% of all aircraft, 5.4% of transport in 1943, 19% transport in 1944 and 32.8% in 1945. Lend-lease deliveries amounted to 4% of Russia’s wartime production.

Soviet production of motor vehicles during the war amounted to 265,00 vehicles. Lend-lease delivered 409,500 motor vehicles. Lend-lease delivery of motor vehicles exceeded Soviet production by 1.5 times. In fact, the Soviets, due to Lend-lease, had more vehicles than fuel for them, i.e. 1st Belorussian Front at the end of 1944 as did the 1st Ukrainian Front. Both fronts requested more deliveries of fuel, less of vehicles.

Russia included lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel in their total production figures. In truth, Lend-lease deliveries of aviation fuel amounted to 57.8% of Russia’s production totals. Lend-lease deliveries of automobile fuel were 242,300 metric tons or 2.8% of Soviet wartime production, but their value was much higher because of the higher-octane level.

Lend-lease deliveries of explosive materials amounted to 53% of the total Soviet wartime production and lend-lease supplied an estimated 82.5% of copper production. Lend-lease deliveries of aluminum, essential for production of aircraft and tank engines exceeded Soviet wartime production by 1.25 times. Lend-lease also delivered 956,700 miles of field telephone wire, 2,100 miles of sea cable, 35,800 radio stations, 5,899 radio receivers and 348 radars. Lend-lease deliveries of canned meat alone amounted to 17.9% of total meat production.

Lend-lease deliveries of locomotives exceeded Soviet production by 2.4 times and railroad rails amounted to 92.7% of overall volume of Soviet rail production. Deliveries of rolling stock exceeded production by 10 times. Deliveries of tires amounted to 43.1% of Soviet production.

Soviet production never produced enough material to sustain the war effort in any key area. In tank production, it wasn’t until 1944 that they actually had a year where tank production exceeded tank losses. Lend-lease tanks amounted to 20% of all Soviet tanks operating in 1944 and without these tanks, they never could have formed the Mech Corps they did in 1944.

The Saka Kingdom and Imperial Rome

Roman trade in the subcontinent according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei 1st century CE

Roman ships leaving the Indus region sailed hundreds of miles south to a port in Gujurat called Barygaza. This was a treacherous sailing for the deep-hulled Roman vessels that might run aground on underwater hazards and be torn apart by powerful currents. The Periplus warns that east of the Indus was a bay called Eirinon where ‘there is a succession of shallow eddies reaching out a long way from land. Here, vessels often run aground with the shore nowhere in sight’.

Roman ships might also be drawn by ocean tides into the Gulf of Barake (Kutch). The Periplus warns that ‘vessels blundering into the basin are destroyed, for the waves are very big and oppressive. The sea is choppy and turbid with eddies and violent whirlpools.’ The crews of Roman ships caught by these currents threw down restraining anchors, but the coast had sheer drops and sharp rocky outcrops that sometimes cut their anchor lines. These dangers have been confirmed by the discovery of Roman amphorae fragments and the remains of lead anchors on the seabed near the island of Bet Dwarka. An indication that the ship was close to currents came when the pilots sighted ‘sea-snakes, huge and black, emerging to meet the ship’. Most Roman ships would head out to sea and only re-join the coast when small golden-yellow eels were seen in the waters about their hull. This was a sign that they had reached the Cambay Gulf which led to the city-port of Barygaza.

Barygaza was ruled by a dynasty of Saka kings who came from homelands on the Asian steppe. The Roman Emperor Augustus received envoys from these Sakas in 26 BC, when he was campaigning in Spain. Suetonius explains that these Indo-Scythian ambassadors ‘were from nations previously known to us only through hearsay and they petitioned for the friendship of Augustus and the Roman people’. This was a period when the Sakas still ruled most of the Indus region, but were being threatened by the Parthians. The Sakas were probably looking for a military alliance with Rome in the expectation that Augustus was planning to conquer Persia. This would explain why Orosius links the embassy to eastern conquests and claims that the ambassadors came to ‘praise the Emperor with the glory of Alexander the Great’.

This embassy was probably sent by Azes who was the last Saka king to rule in Indo-Scythia. The Sakas were influenced by Greek culture and Azes issued currency displaying images of the goddess Athena. He also used Greek titles on his coins and referred to himself as ‘The Great King of Kings’. King Azes was probably responsible for a second embassy that reached the Roman Empire in 22 BC. On this occasion the Saka ambassadors sailed to a port on the Persian Gulf and travelled overland to Roman Syria. In Antioch they were received by Roman authorities and taken to the Greek island of Samos where Augustus was holding court and receiving African envoys from Meroe. Strabo reports that only three of the ambassadors survived the journey from India, ‘the rest had died chiefly by consequence of their long trek’.

The ambassadors carried a letter from Azes to the Emperor written in Greek on a vellum scroll. In it Azes explained that he held the allegiance of 600 minor sovereigns in northern India and ‘was anxious for an alliance with Caesar Augustus’. His Indus possessions were about to be conquered by the Parthians and he proposed a military pact similar to the deal agreed between Alexander and the Indian King Porus. Strabo had an acquaintance named Nicolaus who saw the letter from Azes when the ambassadors were being taken to Antioch. He reported that Azes was ‘ready to allow Augustus passage through his country, wherever he wished to proceed and co-operate with him in anything that was honourable’. According to Dio a ‘treaty of friendship’ was agreed between the two rulers, but by this stage Augustus had begun to seek peace terms with the Parthians and these superseded his plans for any further eastern conquests.

This diplomatic contact occurred in the first decade of Indo-Roman trade when the sight of Indian visitors was still a novelty for most subjects of the Empire. Nicolaus describes how the ‘gifts brought to Caesar Augustus were presented by eight naked servants besprinkled with sweet-smelling odours and clad only in loin-cloths’. Roman crowds marvelled at an armless Indian youth sent by Azes who was proclaimed a ‘living Hermes’ because he resembled the pillar-statues erected in Greek cities to honour the god of expeditions and commerce. Dio describes how the boy could ‘use his feet as if they were hands and with them he could pull a bow, shoot missiles, and put a trumpet to his lips’. The traditional symbols of Hermes included the tortoise, the rooster and a staff called the caduceus which was decorated with two intertwined snakes. This is probably why Azes sent Augustus an exotic pheasant, a large tortoise, a brood of colourful Indian snakes and a giant python. The bird was probably a Himalayan Monal Pheasant which displays metallic-coloured plumage ranging from blue-greens to purple and copper-reds. It was probably symbolic of the mythological phoenix that was said to make its nest from cinnamon twigs. Dio claims that the envoys also brought tigers, and ‘this was the first time the Romans and probably the Greeks had seen these animals’. Augustus displayed these exotic wonders to astonished crowds in Athens and Rome. Strabo reports ‘I myself have seen this Hermes – the man born without arms’.

The Saka ambassadors who visited Augustus were accompanied by a Buddhist or Jain missionary who came from the Gujurat city of Barygaza. This holy man was known in India as a shramana (a monk or religious instructor), but the Romans took this title to be his personal name and called him ‘Zarmarus’ and ‘Zarmano-chegas’ (‘Teacher’ or ‘Master of Shramanas’). Zarmarus probably sought patronage from Augustus and may have requested permission to establish a Buddhist or Jain monastery in Rome, Antioch or Alexandria. His request was denied, but Zarmarus remained in the company of the Emperor when he travelled to Athens in 21 BC.

In Athens Augustus was accepted into a secretive and exclusive Greek cult called the Eleusinian Mysteries which promised its followers rewards in the afterlife. Augustus used his influence to have Zarmarus initiated into this cult so that he could witness some of the most ancient and enigmatic practices involved in Greek religion. Zarmarus decided to exhibit his Indian faith and asked to be burned alive in a funeral pyre. His request was granted by the Emperor and Dio indicates the bewilderment of the Greek crowds who gathered for this occasion. He writes, ‘for some reason Zarmarus wanted to die’ and concludes, ‘maybe he wanted to make a display for the benefit of Augustus and the Athenians’. Plutarch pointed out that the event resembled a ritual performed for Alexander the Great, when an Indian sage named Calanus renounced his position as advisor to the king and immolated himself on a funeral pyre in front of the assembled Macedonian army.

Strabo describes the scene witnessed in Athens by the Emperor when Zarmarus ‘anointed his naked body with fragrances and wearing only a loincloth, leaped upon the lighted pyre with a laugh’. Augustus arranged that the cremated remains were placed in a tomb at Athens and the event commemorated with the text, ‘Here lies Zarmanochegas, an Indian from Barygaza, who immolated himself in accordance with his ancestral customs’. When Plutarch wrote his Life of Alexander, he describes the self-immolation of Calanus and mentions how the memorial to Zaramos had become an attraction in Athens. He reports, ‘the same ritual was performed by an Indian who came with Caesar to Athens and they still show you the Indian’s Monument’.

Augustus took great pride in elevating the Roman Empire to a position of world recognition. His memorial testimony is preserved in an inscription that records, ‘to me were sent embassies of kings from India, who had never been seen in the camp of any Roman general’. However, his interest did not go as far as military intervention and by 10 BC the Parthians had conquered most of the Indus Region (Indo-Scythia). The Saka Kingdom was reduced to Gujurat with Barygaza becoming the main port for the diminished regime. During the first century AD Gujurat was ruled by a Saka King named Nahapana known to Roman traders as ‘Manbanos’.

The Hanseatic League

Soldiers of the Hanseatic League, 15th Century.Map of the Hanseatic League, showing principal Hanseatic cities.

The Hanseatic League, originally an ad hoc association of traveling merchants, had since the thirteenth century developed into a mighty alliance of cities, which for about 300 years largely controlled trade, shipping, and politics in the North Sea and Baltic regions. The Old High German word Hanse meant “crowd” or “community,” and in the twelfth century it designated a cooperative association of long-distance traders who mostly came from the same region or town. Many local Hanse associations existed before the German Hanseatic League of the thirteenth century made its first appearance on the political stage. Merchants from Cologne who operated a branch in London were the first to join together as an association. Their London branch, the Guildhall, and the goods they traded in, were granted a special privilege by the king in 1175. But perhaps more important for the history of the Hanseatic League were the processes that began to play themselves out in the Baltic region during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These included the founding of Lübeck and many other cities in the Baltic region as Germans settled there and the founding of the Gotlandfahrergenossenschaft (German company of merchants traveling to Gotland).

The founding of Lübeck (1143–1159) provided German long-distance Baltic traders with a headquarters and enabled more local merchants from Lower Saxony and Westphalia to access markets in the Baltic region and Russia without having to trade through Scandinavian or Slavic middlemen. For many years, for example, the farmer-merchants on the island of Gotland had dominated trade with Russia. Lübeck, and the advantages it provided for German long-distance traders, represented a real challenge to the Gotlanders. The German merchants were better financed, better trained in the techniques of trade, and better organized, and they possessed a boat—the cog—with a larger carrying capacity than the Gotlanders had at their disposal. In 1161, Duke Henry the Lion permitted the Gotlanders to trade in his Saxon domain under the condition that German merchants be granted the same privilege on Gotland. This greatly stimulated German trade on the island. A document from 1252, a privilege granted by Countess Margaret of Flanders (died 1285), contains the first mention of a Gotland Travelers Association (“universi mercatores romani imperii gotlandiam frequentantes”). It acknowledged visitations by an association of merchants from the “Roman Empire” on Gotland that pursued trade both in the east and in the west and that increasingly used its branch in Visby to gain a foothold in the Novgorod market. Like the Gotlanders before them, they erected a trading center in Novgorod, the Peterhof, which became the Kontor (trading outpost) for the developing Hanseatic trade with Russia. Because of its enormous hinterland, which extended all the way to the White Sea, Novgorod became the center of the pelt trade. Trade with Novgorod was controlled from Visby, on Gotland, and this was where the surplus money was brought at the conclusion of the trading season. However, since the late thirteenth century, Lübeck had begun to vie for control of the Russian trade, and with the support of other cities it successfully argued that legal disputes in Novgorod could be appealed both in Visby and in Lübeck. With that right, Lübeck’s future role as “protector” of the Russia trade was more or less preordained.

A major contributor to their subsequent success was the Lübeck law with its attendant rights that served as the inspiration for other cities. Riga, for example, which had been founded in 1201 at the mouth of the Daugava by a former canon from Bremen, became a long-distance port serving Lübeck. Riga was joined in the thirteenth century by a string of trading cities along the southern Baltic coast, arrayed like pearl necklace: Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald, Elbing, Königsberg, and Reval. German traders had also settled in the Scandinavian kingdoms. In Denmark, schools of herring off the coast of Scania lured German traders; the same was true for southern Sweden, where German traders and artisans became commonplace in the cities, especially in Lödöse, Kalmar, and Stockholm. German miners could be found throughout the iron and copper mining districts as well. Norway was another important trading partner because it was dependent on grain imports to feed its population. Merchants from Lübeck supplied this commodity in exchange for dried cod (stockfish), which was caught in Norwegian waters and dried on wooden racks. The most important trading center was Bergen, where another Hanseatic Kontor was erected, the so-called German Bridge (Deutsche Brücke). From here the Lübeckers controlled trade with the Scandinavian kingdoms.

But Russia, Scandinavia, and the adjacent areas along the Baltic were not the only centers of German trade. At first, with Cologne taking the lead, they also traded with England and then Flanders. After the special privilege of 1175, the 1303 “Carta mercatoria” of Edward I promised foreign merchants, among other things, an exemption from all levies, settlement rights, legal protection from encroachment by royal officials, and the renunciation of new levies in the future—in exchange for an increase in tariffs. This last provision, the renunciation of new levies, would turn out to be the core of the privilege. When Edward III placed a duty on cloth exports in 1337 to finance the Hundred Years’ War, the Hanseatic League successfully gained exemption from this levy by arguing the “Carta mercatoria.” English merchants and other foreigners were forced to pay. With that exemption, the “Carta mercatoria,” which originally applied to all foreigners trading in England, became a privilege of the Hanseatic League alone. They used the Guildhall as their Kontor and then built up the adjacent Steelyard grounds for the purpose of further exploiting their privilege.

The final, and in fact most important, trade region in which German merchants were active was Flanders, where high-quality textiles were produced in large quantities. At first, the German merchants acquired these textiles at markets in Champagne and later primarily in Bruges, which because of its central location developed into the most important commodity market in western Europe. In 1252, Countess Margaret privileged the German merchants by granting them relief from customs duties. One year later, they were exempted from trial by combat, liability for the debts and transgressions of others, and from strand law and other encumbrances, which greatly bolstered the legal underpinnings of their trade. Nonetheless, conflicts between the city of Bruges and the German merchants were frequent, largely for reasons of restraint of trade. In 1280–1282, the merchants reacted by moving temporarily to the neighboring city of Aardenburg, as a result of which Bruges reaffirmed its privileges. Then in 1347, the German merchants devised a Kontor system of their own, which was supposed to consolidate their interests vis-à-vis the city of Bruges and the Duchy of Flanders. They did this because trade with Flanders was a matter of life and death to them; this was where they acquired the textiles that they then sold in the markets of Germany, the Baltic region, and Russia.

To successfully counter further infringements on their privileges in Flanders, in 1356 they placed the hitherto independent Bruges Kontor under the authority of an umbrella institution, the Hanseatic Diet, which was usually but not always held in Lübeck. From then on, the Hanseatic Diet, representing the “cities of the Hanseatic League” (first mentioned in 1358), and not the Hanseatic merchants at the various trading outposts, determined trade policy. It soon became clear that the Hanseatic League as a whole was more adroit and powerful in pressing its interests than were the groups of Hanseatic merchants, each pursuing its own special interests in its foreign trading centers. The creation of the Hanseatic Diet representing all of the Hanseatic cities marked the end of a process that had begun in the thirteenth century, when the cities began to exert an ever-increasing influence on the cooperative associations of their merchants abroad. The cities had supported them in acquiring privileges, created the necessary legal structure for their trade, and granted them legal protection. From now on, the cities of the North Sea and Baltic region that were represented in the Hanseatic League would control trade and trade policies in this region. The representatives of these cities gathered as needed in the Hanseatic Diet, which made all of the important decisions. As a result, Lübeck became the de facto capital of the Hanseatic League.

New challenges in the Baltic region began to confront the Hanseatic League during the second half of the fourteenth century, which forced the new confederation of cities to prove its mettle. In 1360, King Valdemar IV (ca. 1320–1375) began to pursue a policy of Danish hegemony in the Baltic Sea and conquered not just Scania, which it had earlier lost to Sweden, but Gotland as well. Denmark raised duties and other levies for Hanseatic merchants, encumbering trade with Scania, which represented a casus belli for Lübeck and the eastern Hanseatic cities. After the Hanseatic League suffered an initial defeat at sea, Denmark made life difficult for the Hanseatic cities of the Zuiderzee and cut off passage through the Øresund to the Dutch cities that were loosely associated with the league. These actions struck a vital nerve. As a result, all of the Hanseatic cities from the lower Rhine to Reval joined forces with the cities on the Zuiderzee in the Confederation of Cologne. In concert, they militarily restored their privileges in the Treaty of Stralsund (1370), especially the right of unimpeded access to Denmark by land and by sea. They also received reparations stemming from the war. The Treaty of Stralsund marked the apex of power of the Hanseatic League; the supremacy of the Hanseatic cities in the Baltic trade was now uncontested. However, it remained a community of interest exclusively for merchants, who used political and military means to secure only their trading privileges.

Hanseatic trade proceeded from east to west along a line dotted with their trading centers in Novgorod, Reval, Riga, Visby, Danzig, Stralsund, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bruges, and London, and its existence was based on the trade between the suppliers of foodstuffs and raw materials in northern and eastern Europe and the commercial producers of finished products in northwestern Europe. The merchants, however, went well beyond their function as middlemen between east and west, first by trading in the products manufactured by the Hanseatic cities themselves and then by penetrating deep into the Baltic hinterlands south of the coast. As a result, not only did they open up trade with Bohemia and Silesia by way of the Elbe and Oder Rivers, they also followed the Vistula through Cracow to the copper mining districts of upper Hungary (Slovakia) and connected with trading partners in the Black Sea via Lemberg (Lviv).

The regions visited by these merchants depended on local demands and production. They had a large assortment of products, both mass-produced goods for daily life and luxury products for a small, wealthy clientele. The most important products were wool, woolen and linen textiles, pelts and furs, herring and dried cod, salt, wax, grain, flax and hemp, wood and forestry products (ash, pitch, tar), and beer and wine. Pelts, wax, grain, flax, wood, and beer flowed westward, where they were exchanged for needed textiles, salt, wine, metal products, spices, and other luxury goods. Fish was sold throughout the Hanseatic region.

We may have identified two interconnected economic regions in the east—on the one hand, the Russian trade region, centered in Novgorod with its pelts and furs, and on the other the Livonian urban region around Reval, Dorpat, and Riga along with the Daugava hinterland, which supplied mainly flax and hemp. Demand for furs—from expensive sable to cheap squirrel—and wax for illumination, was heavy throughout Europe. Hemp was needed for rope and flax for linen in all ports of the Hanseatic region. In eastern Europe, Flemish textiles and sea salt were in high demand. Another trade region south of Livonia was controlled by the state of the Teutonic Order and the Prussian Hanseatic cities of Danzig, Elbing, and Thorn. They made available to Hanseatic trade the products of the Lithuanian and Polish hinterland by way of the Vistula and Memel Rivers. The Lithuanian regions contributed wax, pelts, wood, and flax; Poland produced mainly grain and timber products. The latter supplied shipbuilders with wood for masts and planks; herring fisheries, breweries, and salt works needed wood for barrels, while numerous manufacturers were dependent on steady supplies of pitch, tar, and ash. The primary export product from the Prussian Hanseatic cities, however, was grain, which nourished the population living in the highly urbanized centers of western Europe. Not to be forgotten are luxury products like amber, which was gathered along the Sambian coast of the Baltic. The Teutonic Order had a monopoly on the amber trade, and they exported amber to Lübeck and Bruges, where amber turners worked them into luxurious rosaries. Salt, herring, and textiles were the most important Prussian imports.

In the western part of the Baltic, Sweden contributed iron, copper, butter, and cattle and cowhides to the Hanseatic trade, although, with the exception of metals, Sweden stood in the shadow of Denmark. Since the fifteenth century, Denmark had become an important exporter of horses, oxen, and butter. Prior to this time, Hanseatic trade with Denmark had primarily concentrated on Scanian herring, schools of which were in the fourteenth century said to be so thick that the fish could be caught by hand. During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the decline in Baltic and North Sea herring increasingly amplified the importance of Dutch herring fishers. The other important fish supplier, Norway, which at the time belonged to Denmark, was profoundly dependent on Hanseatic imports. Hanseatic merchants supplied grain, flour, beer, malt, hops, salt, and linen, and they exported primarily dried cod and small quantities of cod liver oil, walrus tooth, skins, and other goods. When, toward the end of the fifteenth century and during the sixteenth, consumers came to prefer Icelandic dried cod, Hanseatic trade with Norway receded in importance.

Trade with England, the original domain of Hanseatic merchants from the Rhineland and Westphalia, continued to be brisk. They exported Rhine wine, metals, and the dyes madder and woad to England and imported tin and English wool for the textile industry in Flanders and Brabant, and later also English textiles. The Hanseatic cities of the Baltic coast, in turn, provided wares typical of the east, including pelts, wax, grain, and wood as well as Scandinavian fish and metals. The most important market in western Europe, however, was the Netherlands. Flanders and later Brabant were not only important textile producers, they also established key trade connections with the Mediterranean basin. The Hanseatic merchants bought goods in Flemish and Brabant cities, primarily woolen textiles of high and medium quality, as well as trousers from Bruges. They also acquired spices, figs, and raisins from southern Europe. France contributed oil and wine as well as bay salt. This sea salt, harvested from the Atlantic, became increasingly important as a preservative. Prussian and especially Netherlandish ships made regular bay salt runs, then used it as ballast on the way to the Baltic, where they traded it for grain and wood for the western European market. By doing so, they undermined Lübeck’s monopoly as an intermediary in trade. The Hanseatic presence in southern Europe was sporadic, except for the wine trade with Bordeaux, although the Veckinchusen family did attempt to establish trade in pelts with Venice.

In addition to products from distant trading partners, goods produced in Hanseatic cities played a key role in domestic as well as foreign trade. Products that flowed east included colored metallic goods from Aachen; Rhine wine; tools from the Westphalian lands of Mark, Berg, and Siegerland; ceramics from the Rhineland; Westphalian textiles and linen; brassware from Braunschweig; salt from Lüneburg; and beer from Hamburg.

The Hanseatic trade was organized by merchant trading companies. The most common model was the free type, in which two partners invested capital and split the profits according to the capital invested and the profits realized. Such organizations generally lasted for one to two years. The large-scale international merchants were generally involved in several companies at a time. This decreased their overall risk and increased the assortment of goods in which they traded. Relatives were often brought in as partners because they were more likely to be trustworthy, especially when it came to long-distance east-west trade. Unlike in Italy or in southern Germany, large, centrally controlled trading companies extending over several generations and including a large number of participants did not exist in the Hanseatic trade. As a result, the Hanseatic companies saw no need to introduce the double bookkeeping that was standard in Italy.

The four Hanseatic Kontore in Novgorod, Bergen, London, and Bruges formed a sort of higher-level trade organization. Here, German merchants lived in specially demarcated areas such as the Petershof, the German Bridge, or the walled Steelyard. Only in Bruges did Hanseatic merchants live with local hosts. Each Kontor was tightly structured, with aldermen (literally, older men) elected annually; firmly established statutes; and its own legal jurisdiction, counting house, and seal. The Kontore were important in terms of acquiring trading privileges because, with cover provided by the Hanseatic cities, they represented the interests of merchants in their dealings with the ruling elites and cities in the foreign countries in which they traded. But the Kontore also facilitated everyday trade by establishing a regular news and messenger system with their home cities, and the attendant correspondence, certification, and bookkeeping also helped them to raise credit. But above all, the reporting requirements regarding the Hanseatic merchants active in any given area encouraged a certain uniformity in the buying and selling of goods, which tended to limit competition among Hanseatic members.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Hanseatic trade experienced setbacks on all fronts. The old trading system based on privileges proved inadequate in the face of growing competition and the consolidation of the European powers. For example, the Scandinavian kings now attempted to limit Hanseatic trade for the benefit of their own merchants. At the same time, these kings played the Hanseatic merchants off against their Dutch competitors. As a result, the Hanseatic cities were drawn into Scandinavian power struggles by backing privateers in hopes of retaining their privileges. The closing of the Novgorod Kontor in 1494 by Ivan III was another blow, although much of its trade had already shifted to the Livonian port cities of Riga and Reval during the fifteenth century, as a result of which these cities experienced a significant upswing.

Matters were changing in England as well, where imports and exports of textiles were at the center of disputes. Internal conflicts within the Hanseatic League undoubtedly played a role, because Lübeck stubbornly demanded that England recognize its old privileges, whereas Cologne and the Prussian trading cities were ready to come to an accommodation. Be that as it may, the 1474 Treaty of Utrecht ratified an understanding with England that restored the Hanseatic privileges. As a result, Hanseatic trade in England enjoyed a final phase of prosperity up to the middle of the sixteenth century.

The Dutch and the Zeelanders were locked in competition with Hanseatic cities such as Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, and Greifswald because the latter saw their position as middlemen in the east-west route threatened. However, Lübeck was unable to limit Dutch access to the Baltic Sea, either by peaceful or by military means. In fact, the Prussian Hanseatic cities of Danzig, Elbing, Thorn, and Königsberg were largely dependent on Dutch freight capacity. As a result, in 1475–1476, a quarter of Danzig’s shipping relied on Dutch ships, an advantage that the Dutch continued to expand and exploit.

The Bruges Kontor had de facto been located in Antwerp since 1460 because merchants attended the Brabant trade fairs there and in Bergen op Zoom. By the time the Hanseatic merchants set about building a Kontor in Antwerp, in 1563, Antwerp’s trade had already reached its zenith. Other Hanseatic cities like Hamburg and Bremen contributed to the decline of the German Bridge Kontor in Bergen by increasing their trade with Iceland and the Shetland Islands in the late fifteenth century.

Signs of Hanseatic decline were rife in the sixteenth century. Historians have cited a number of causes for this decline, including the increasing vigor of the German territorial states and the Nordic kingdoms as well as overwhelming competition from southern German trading houses and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, this picture of decline contrasts markedly with the general upswing in European trade in the sixteenth century. Although the Hanseatic cities took part in this growth, a traditional trading system based on privileges proved no longer tenable. Neither Bruges, Bergen, Lübeck, nor Novgorod were the beneficiaries of this new expansion in trade, however; the future belonged to Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Danzig. Just as innovations in shipping and trade had once given the Hanseatic League an edge over the peasant-merchants from Gotland, new types of ships and the expansion of commission trade and cashless instruments of payment now overwhelmingly favored the Dutch.


Middle East

The U.S. Role

The United States played a prominent role in the United Nations in separating the combatants and ending the hostilities in 1956. As we noted in the previous chapter, this was hardly because the American administration was sympathetic to Nasser’s plight or to Arab nationalism. The Americans felt deeply embarrassed and compromised by their allies, Britain and France, who had acted without consulting them—and right on the eve of a presidential election at that. The American public expressed concern about upholding the principles of the UN Charter, and President Eisenhower displayed a sense of moral outrage that they had been violated. Although this stand scored points in the short run, subsequent U.S. actions tended to erode Arab goodwill. American refusal to supply medical help for the victims of allied bombing at Port Said, and the cessation of the CARE program in Egypt, which had provided free lunches to Egyptian schoolchildren, spoke louder than pious platitudes. Indeed, the United States adhered initially to a Western economic boycott of Egypt, refusing to sell surplus wheat and oil. In this way, the United States exhibited its continued friendship for its European allies and its disdain for Nasser. At the same time, this attitude enabled and encouraged the Soviet Union and its satellites to extend their influence. Economic and technical assistance on an increasingly large scale were evident after 1957, capped in Egypt by the Soviet agreement in October 1958 to help build the Aswan High Dam. The worth of Soviet arms to Egypt would eventually total about $2 billion. This compared to American economic and technical aid to Israel of about $850 million between 1949 and 1965.

Because Britain and France had been so completely discredited in the region, however, the United States found itself in the position of defending Western interests and resisting the expansion of Soviet influence in those countries that had not followed Nasser’s lead. The new instrument of American policy became the Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by Congress in March 1957. By its terms, the president was authorized to extend economic and military assistance, including troops, to any Middle Eastern nation that requested it against the threat of international communism. No Arab country, with the exception of Libya and Lebanon, was eager to embrace the doctrine. Zionism, not communism, was considered the enemy. Moreover, the United States was seen as attempting to weaken Arab unity by insisting that the Arab countries line up on one side or the other in the Cold War. Although the United States continued to maintain an important airbase at Dhahran (until 1961), and the Saudis were considered to be “allies,” the Saudi king did not endorse the Eisenhower Doctrine. Nor did King Hussein, even though the United States extended $10 million in financial assistance to Jordan when the king quashed a Nasser-supported Communist plot against the monarchy in 1957.

The one Arab country enthusiastic about the Eisenhower Doctrine was Lebanon, especially under its Christian president, Camille Chamoun. Chamoun despised Nasser and was disturbed about growing Egyptian and Soviet influence, especially in neighboring Syria. Closer adherence to the West through formal adherence to the Eisenhower Doctrine, however, seemed to violate the spirit of Lebanon’s “national pact,” through which a balance of interests had been maintained among Lebanon’s many religious and family groups. Moreover, Chamoun’s overt identification with Western interests alienated other Lebanese political leaders and a large part of the Muslim population whose sympathies were with Nasser and Arab nationalism. Chamoun attempted to secure a second term as president in violation of the constitution. Anti-Chamoun and pro-Nasserist groups in Lebanon, supplied with funds, weapons, and propaganda from the newly formed United Arab Republic, saw this as an opportunity to gain power, and this set off a brief civil war in 1958.

At the same time, in July 1958, in Iraq the pro-Western monarchy was overthrown. Fearing that a Communist takeover in the region was imminent, and worried about his own safety, Chamoun asked for American help. Largely because of the situation in Iraq, Eisenhower responded promptly. American troops landed on the beaches of Lebanon, as British troops rushed to the aid of King Hussein to stabilize his regime. Chamoun, who had helped precipitate the crisis by hinting that he would not give up the presidency, wisely left office in September at the end of his term. A more neutral government was formed in Lebanon, and the U.S. Marines departed, indicating, among other things, that the United States would not directly interfere with the Lebanese political process. The new Lebanese government repudiated the Eisenhower Doctrine, which left the next American administration with the task of reevaluating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

In Washington, the Arab–Israeli conflict continued to be placed within the context of basic American interests in the area. These included uninterrupted communication facilities and access to oil, the maintenance of general stability, and the protection of strategic interests against the threat of Soviet expansionism. In the Kennedy administration, however, a new approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict evolved, which John Badeau, Kennedy’s ambassador to Egypt, later called the “icebox” device: deal with those issues on which Middle Easterners and Americans can agree, and put the others in cold storage for the time being. One such issue was the Palestinian refugee problem, which the United States unsuccessfully took a stab at in the fall of 1961. Kennedy sent Dr. Joseph Johnson, president of the Carnegie Foundation, to consult the Israelis and Arabs about ways to deal with the situation. Johnson’s own plan was to offer the refugees, under the active supervision of the United Nations, the choice of return or compensation for settlement outside Israel. Johnson had no luck on his first or on a subsequent trip the next spring in moving the different parties from their respective positions. The Arabs continued to insist on the right of return of all refugees, the Israelis on recognition and direct negotiation of all outstanding issues, including that of the refugees.

The United States assured Israel that it upheld the principle of the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and would defend the Jewish state against aggression. There seemed during the Kennedy years, however, a somewhat greater appreciation of the dynamics and complexities of the Arab world. American policymakers began to realize that the achievement of American objectives did not require a specific form of political or economic system. Indeed, many believed that America could aid constructive change in Middle Eastern countries through nonmilitary aid and cultural exchange, to the mutual benefit of the Arabs and the United States. Economic and technical aid was therefore offered to Egypt, especially through Public Law 480, which enabled recipient countries to purchase surplus wheat and other commodities with local currency that remained in the country to generate development projects. In the early 1960s, for example, the United States supplied about $150 million a year in wheat surpluses, which was more than half the grain consumed in Egypt.

Meanwhile, quantities of Soviet arms were pouring into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Israel used Nasser’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, as well as his hiring of German technicians to help develop surface-to-surface missiles and jet fighters, as arguments to persuade the United States to sell Israel weapons directly for the first time. The Kennedy administration agreed to sell Israel Hawk ground-to-air missiles and tanks at the end of September 1962, and shipments of American arms went to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In this way, the United States attempted to maintain a balance between Israel and the Arabs, and between the “radical” Arab countries supplied by the Soviet Union and those supplied by the United States.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson continued the basic approach of an arms balance and upholding the territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern countries including Israel, but with a different style and far less consistency. The different style arose to some extent because of personal antipathy between Nasser and Johnson. Nasser took an almost instant dislike to the American president and mentioned in his letters how he was put off by photographs of Johnson showing reporters the scar from his recent gallbladder operation and with his feet up on his desk. Nasser also feared that the United States might move to oust him, as it had Mossadeq in Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. He suspected, too, that the United States had been involved in removing such leaders as Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Sukarno, and Kwame Nkrumah. Johnson himself was not attuned to the sensibilities of foreign leaders, and he had little patience with Nasser. The conduct of American foreign relations in the Middle East was further complicated after 1964 by difficulties on the domestic scene and by the escalating war in Vietnam.

When the United States expressed its displeasure over Nasser’s aid to rebels in the Belgian Congo, Nasser told the United States at the end of 1964 to forget its aid and go drink seawater. With less surplus wheat available to dispose of anyway, American economic aid to Egypt was discontinued shortly thereafter, causing severe repercussions in the Egyptian economy. This seemed to end any hope of a rapprochement between the two countries and to signal that Egypt would not break out of the Soviet orbit. The Soviet Union greatly enhanced its role in the Middle East in the 1960s. Still, the United States believed that, by maintaining Israel’s military strength and aiding friendly Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, its basic goals—maintaining stability in the region and thus diminishing the prospect of an Arab–Israeli war that could lead to superpower confrontation—had been preserved.

The Soviet Role

Like the United States, the Soviet Union had its successes and failures in the Middle East. While the Soviet leaders would like to have seen the victory of communism in the area and were constantly reminded by the Chinese not to forget ideological imperatives, Soviet policy was of necessity based on realpolitik. Soviet goals included outflanking NATO, neutralizing the United States in the Middle East, and working to achieve preeminence in an area the Russians considered as almost their own backyard. After loosening their ties with socialist Israel in the 1950s and unequivocally adopting the Arab and Palestinian causes, the Soviets imitated the West in extending economic and military aid to their allies in the region. Under Nikita Khrushchev, between 1955 and 1959, the Soviets established a diplomatic presence in the area, made extensive arms deals, trained local armies, offered economic and technical assistance, and energetically supported anti-Western regimes.

The Soviet leap over the so-called northern tier, however, had brought it right into the tangled web of inter-Arab affairs and created unavoidable dilemmas, similar to those experienced by the United States. As America had discovered, the Soviet Union found it difficult to have its cake and eat it too. The events surrounding the Iraqi coup in 1958, when Abdul Karim Qasim came to power supported by local Communists, illustrated the problem. Moscow was delighted by the revolution in Iraq but alienated Nasser by its support of Qasim, who had very different ideas about Arab unity and who in fact put down a pro-Nasser movement in Iraq. (This climate had, of course, made it easier for the United States to effect its own rapprochement with Nasser in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) Within two years, however, Qasim had also rejected local Communist support and refused recognition to the Iraq Communist party. This was a bitter disappointment to the Soviets.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued economic and especially military aid to regimes that were anti-West, at a high cost to its own economy. Thus, the Russians pledged support to Egypt to help build the second stage of the Aswan High Dam at the same time that the United States was providing Egypt with the bulk of its grain; and the arms flow to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq continued, albeit with a temporary halt in Iraq when Qasim was toppled by a Baath coup in 1963 that purged local Communists. In the meantime, the stakes had also been raised. It was one thing to embarrass the West, but another to challenge it. The Soviets began to realize the danger of local outbreaks that could eventually spark a wider conflagration. Moreover, the Russians found themselves in the position of sometimes seeing arms they had supplied being used in ways over which they had little control or which involved their own warring clients (Nasser versus competitive regimes in Baghdad or Damascus, Baghdad versus the Kurds, etc.).

In particular, the Soviet Union was ambivalent about Nasser, applauding and supporting his actions when they hurt the West but being less sanguine when they threatened other Soviet clients. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets themselves decided that their ultimate ideological objectives might be reached by a continuation of aid and a policy of encouraging local Communists to work with the various governments in return for being left alone. This approach may or may not have encouraged the radicalization of the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. However, as it became more apparent that circumstances for the achievement of both ideological and Cold War objectives were increasingly favorable, particularly in Syria after 1966, the Russians found themselves in the position of wanting and needing to preserve and extend their gains. The closer involvement in Middle East affairs, however, brought them right into the arena of the Arab–Israeli conflict, a fact illustrated dramatically in the events that precipitated the Six-Day War.

The Road to War

In 1958, Gamal Abdul Nasser was the leading figure in the Arab world. By 1961, however, Syria had seceded from the UAR, and Qasim’s regime in Iraq was forging its own destiny, which would continue to diverge from that of Egypt with successive military coups. Internally, as noted above, Egypt’s economy was in poor shape. Moreover, Nasser’s friends from the Bandung conference and in the third world, leaders like Nehru, Sukarno, Ben Bella, and others, were no longer in power.

Nasser had determined after 1956 that he would not become involved in a major confrontation with Israel unless he could win; that is, unless he was fully prepared militarily and the international circumstances were right. He recognized Israel’s growing economic and military strength and the international support Israel enjoyed in the West and among many of the developing nations. Because of Arab unpreparedness and Israel’s policy of retaliation, Nasser did not lend support for Syrian efforts to halt Israel’s water-diversion scheme. Nor did he react, despite Jordanian taunts, to Israel’s attack against as-Samu, except to insist to King Hussein that responsibility for repulsing Israel reprisal raids rested with the individual countries. Nasser retreated to this position again in April 1967, when, after several months of violent incidents in the north, an air battle erupted between Israel and Syria in which Israel violated Syrian airspace, shot down six MiGs, and buzzed Damascus. Nasser remained aloof.

To the Russians, however, it seemed absolutely crucial to prod the Egyptians into living up to the commitment implied in the joint defense pact. The unstable Jadid regime in Syria had raised the stakes in the north without much apparent success and had embarked on a course that promised the counterproductive effect of massive Israeli retaliation. The achievement of Soviet objectives in Syria seemed to be in jeopardy. Only by the device of Nasser restraining Jadid and/or causing Israel to pause before retaliating for Syrian raids, because of the possibility of Egyptian action in the south, could some Soviet control be exerted over this situation. In early May 1967, therefore, the Russians passed on to the Egyptians information about heavy Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border and an Israeli contingency plan for an attack on Syria.

The Soviets, and probably Nasser himself, knew that information about massive Israeli troop concentrations was false. Indeed, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), U.S. intelligence, and Egyptian observers on the spot failed to detect any Israeli moves. Nasser, however, decided to become involved and to take some action for several reasons. He was convinced that the United States was trying to get at him indirectly by urging Israel to hit Syria, but he believed the Russians would now stand behind him whatever action he took. Nasser had a false estimation of Egyptian strength based on the great amount of military hardware he had amassed. His poor economic situation called for some outlet for the frustration that had been building among the Egyptian people. And he certainly hoped that assuming an active role against Israel would quiet his critics and restore his position of leadership in the Arab world.

Thus, on May 14, 1967, Cairo announced that Egyptian armed forces were in a state of maximum alert, and combat units crossed the Suez into Sinai. On May 16, Egypt requested the UNEF to be concentrated in the Gaza Strip; and on May 18, the Egyptian foreign minister demanded that UN Secretary General U Thant recall all troops of the UNEF stationed in the Gaza Strip and on UAR soil. This was a step Nasser had every legal right to take, but instead of procrastinating in order to defuse the growing crisis, U Thant complied almost immediately. Egyptian troops and tanks began to rumble across the Sinai and to take over UN positions. Syria also began to mobilize, as did Jordan and Iraq. On May 22, with Egyptian troops at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser announced the closing of the Strait of Tiran and thus the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli vessels or any vessels carrying goods to Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol replied the next day that Israel would consider any interference with freedom of shipping as an act of aggression against Israel. Bellicose speeches continued to emanate from Cairo, however, and during the next week, Nasser on several occasions stated that Palestine must be liberated and Israel destroyed.

As the crisis escalated, the Security Council met in emergency session, but its discussions were fruitless and hampered by the Soviet veto. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Paris, London, and the United States, as the Western countries groped for some way to defuse the situation. Although President Johnson publicly denounced Nasser’s closing of the waterway and promised that the United States would try to get other maritime nations to join in testing the blockade, the American Aide Memoire of 1957 was obviously a worthless scrap of paper. Privately, Johnson warned Israel against a preemptive strike, and Israeli moderates hesitated to act unilaterally. Nasser appeared to have Israel in a bind; the prolonged general mobilization in Israel was beginning to have a dire psychological as well as economic effect. To the Arabs, what had perhaps started as some limited action began to take on the possibility of a potentially successful military operation, as Nasser, believing he had the support of the Russians, went to the brink. On May 30, 1967, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Egypt to sign a defense pact with Egypt. He agreed to allow Iraqi troops to enter Jordanian territory in the event of hostilities and to place his troops under Egyptian military authority. PLO leader Shuqayri, although no friend of Hussein, was present at the signing ceremony and flew back to Jordan with the king.

The situation was extremely difficult for Israel. There were Arab armies poised on all its borders; mobilization was taking a toll economically, as normal life came to a standstill, and politically, there was a crisis situation, as Eshkol’s government seemed incapable of making a decision about what course of action to take. All armies have contingency plans, and as early as 1964 Israel had worked out such a plan for an attack against Egypt if necessary. Israel had on several occasions threatened reprisals against Syria and undoubtedly had various alternatives on the drawing board. Given Israel’s borders, the idea of the preemptive strike (or what some Israeli military leaders like Yigal Allon called the “preemptive counterstrike”) had come to be accepted, since Israel within its present borders was not in a position to absorb a first blow and survive. Because of Israel’s policies of massive retaliation and offensive warfare as the best defense, some historians and writers see all the Arab–Israeli wars as the result of Israeli aggressiveness and expansionism, which they attribute to an inherent dynamic and master plan of Zionism. In their view, while Nasser may have shown antipathy to Israel, and with good reason, he was not a warmonger—in contrast to Ben-Gurion and a coterie of younger Israeli “hawks” who had been planning another strike against Nasser for a decade.

Other historians argue that despite the existence of military contingency plans, there is no evidence that Israel would have launched a full-scale war against Egypt had Nasser not taken the provocative actions he did. They contend, on the contrary, that the failure of Israel to retaliate for the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba—a retaliation that was expected among both the Arabs and the superpowers—and the hesitation and indecisiveness evident in Israel as diplomatic solutions were floated fed Nasser’s megalomania and encouraged King Hussein of Jordan to put aside past differences and climb on the bandwagon. They maintain that no matter how pragmatic Nasser could be, the defeat of 1948 and the drubbing of 1956 had only nourished Arab hatred of Israel and the desire for revenge. In any event, the Egyptian–Jordanian defense pact seems to have galvanized the Israelis, who put together a government of national unity (which included Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition for all the years since statehood), in which Moshe Dayan was named minister of defense.

With Dayan in the cabinet, and with the Israeli belief that the existence of the entire nation was indeed in jeopardy, it was almost a certainty that Israel would strike the first blow. According to apologists for Israel, this is precisely what Nasser wanted. Were he to initiate hostilities, the issue would not be about shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba but about the continued existence of the Jewish state, which the United States was pledged to uphold. In this view, Nasser believed that Israel, in striking a first blow, would be diplomatically isolated, especially from the United States, and that the Americans would hesitate to intervene on Israel’s side. Wiser leaders than Eshkol and Nasser, however, might have averted conflict.

The Six-Day War broke out on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Israeli planes destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground. Details of the war itself have been told in countless books and will not be repeated here, but the importance of air power and the cohesiveness of Israel’s citizen army should be mentioned as significant factors in Israel’s success. The outcome was even more dramatic, since the Arabs seemed to be superior in almost every weapons category. After the initial Israeli air strike, Israeli ground troops defeated the Egyptian army, seizing the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula. In a still-disputed incident on June 8, the Israelis attacked an American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty, sailing off the Egyptian coast. Thirty-four sailors were killed and 164 wounded. Some writers insist that this was a deliberate and premeditated attack; Israel continues to maintain that the attack on the Liberty was a case of mistaken identity and an accident. Israel apologized and later paid $3 million in reparations for the families of the victims to the U.S. government, which accepted Israel’s explanation and apology.

Israel asked King Hussein to stay out of the war and assured him it would not attack him first. Hussein, however, was badly misled by the Egyptians, who intimated that they were being successful against Israel on the southern front. Jordanian guns began to fire from across the borders in Jerusalem while Jordanian troops seized the UN headquarters in no-man’s land. This was indeed the excuse the Israelis needed to take the Old City of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. Israel then turned toward Syria, which had been attacking Israel’s northern settlements by air and with artillery. Although the United Nations called for a cease-fire, the Israelis did not stop until they had captured the Golan Heights in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By June 10, 1967, six days later, the war was over.

The Roman grain trade

Roman Merchant Ships

The grain trade was not simply a source of profit for Rome’s merchants. In 5 BC Augustus Caesar distributed grain to 320,000 male citizens; he proudly recorded this fact in a great public inscription commemorating his victories and achievements, for holding the favour of the Romans was as important as winning victories at sea and on land. The era of ‘bread and circuses’ was beginning, and cultivating the Roman People was an art many emperors well understood (baked bread was not in fact distributed until the third century AD, when Emperor Aurelian substituted bread for grain). By the end of the first century BC Rome controlled several of the most important sources of grain in the Mediterranean, those in Sicily, Sardinia and Africa that Pompey had been so careful to protect. One result may have been a decline in cultivation of grain in central Italy: in the late second century BC, the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus already complained that Etruria was now given over to great estates where landlords profited from their flocks, rather than from the soil. Rome no longer had to depend on the vagaries of the Italian climate for its food supply, but it was not easy to control Sicily and Sardinia from afar, as the conflict with the rebel commander Sextus Pompeius proved. More and more elaborate systems of exchange developed to make sure that grain and other goods flowed towards Rome. As Augustus transformed the city, and as great palaces rose on the Palatine hill, demand for luxury items – silks, perfumes, ivory from the Indian Ocean, fine Greek sculptures, glassware, chased metalwork from the eastern Mediterranean – burgeoned. Earlier, in 129 BC, Ptolemy VIII, king of Egypt, received a Roman delegation led by Scipio, conqueror of Carthage, and caused deep shock when he entertained his guests to lavish feasts dressed in a transparent tunic made of silk (probably from China), through which the Romans could see not just his portly frame but his genitals. But Scipio’s austerity was already unfashionable among the Roman nobility. Even the equally austere Cato the Elder (d. 149 BC) used to buy 2 per cent shares in shipping ventures, spreading his investments across a number of voyages, and he sent a favoured freedman, Quintio, on these voyages as his agent.

The period from the establishment of Delos as a free port (168–167 BC) to the second century AD saw a boom in maritime traffic. As has been seen, the problem of piracy diminished very significantly after 69 BC: journeys became safer. Interestingly, most of the largest ships (250 tons upwards) date from the second and first centuries BC, while the majority of vessels in all periods displaced less than 75 tons. Larger ships, carrying armed guards, were better able to defend themselves against pirates, even if they lacked the speed of the smaller vessels. As piracy declined, smaller ships became more popular. These small ships would have been able to carry about 1,500 amphorae at most, while the larger ships could carry 6,000 or more, and were not seriously rivalled in size until the late Middle Ages.32 The sheer uniformity of cargoes conveys a sense of the regular rhythms of trade: about half the ships carried a single type of cargo, whether wine, oil or grain. Bulk goods were moving in ever larger quantities across the Mediterranean. Coastal areas with access to ports could specialize in particular products for which their soil was well suited, leaving the regular supply of essential foodstuffs to visiting merchants. Their safety was guaranteed by the pax romana, the Roman peace that followed the suppression of piracy and the extension of Roman rule across the Mediterranean.

The little port of Cosa on a promontory off the Etruscan coastline provides impressive evidence for the movement of goods around the Mediterranean at this time. Its workshops turned out thousands of amphorae at the instigation of a noble family of the early imperial age, the Sestii, who made their town into a successful industrial centre. Amphorae from Cosa have been found in a wreck at Grand-Congloué near Marseilles: most of the 1,200 jars were stamped with the letters SES, the family’s mark. Another wreck lying underneath this one dates from 190–180 BC, and contained amphorae from Rhodes and elsewhere in the Aegean, as well as huge amounts of south Italian tableware on its way to southern Gaul or Spain. Items such as these could penetrate inland for great distances, though bulk foodstuffs tended to be consumed on or near the coasts, because of the difficulty and expense of transporting them inland, except by river. Water transport was immeasurably cheaper than land transport, a problem that, as will be seen, faced even a city such a short way from the sea as Rome.

Grain was the staple foodstuff, particularly the triticum durum, hard wheat, of Sicily, Sardinia, Africa and Egypt (hard wheats are drier than soft, so they keep better), though real connoisseurs preferred siligo, a soft wheat made from naked spelt. A bread-based diet only filled stomachs, and a companaticum (‘something-with-bread’) of cheese, fish or vegetables broadened the diet. Vegetables, unless pickled, did not travel well, but cheese, oil and wine found markets across the Mediterranean, while the transport by sea of salted meat was largely reserved for the Roman army. Increasingly popular was garum, the stinking sauce made of fish innards, which was poured into amphorae and traded across the Mediterranean. Excavations in Barcelona, close to the cathedral, have revealed a sizeable garum factory amid the buildings of a medium-sized imperial town. It took about ten days with a following wind to reach Alexandria from Rome, a distance of 1,000 miles; in unpleasant weather, the return journey could take six times as long, though shippers would hope for about three weeks. Navigation was strongly discouraged from mid-November to early March, and regarded as quite dangerous from mid-September to early November and from March to the end of May. This ‘close season’ was observed in some degree right through the Middle Ages as well.

A vivid account of a winter voyage that went wrong is provided by Paul of Tarsus in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, a prisoner of the Romans, was placed on board an Alexandrian grain ship setting out for Italy from Myra, on the south coast of Anatolia; but it was very late in the sailing season, the ship was delayed by the winds, and by the time they were off Crete the seas had become dangerous. Rather than wintering in Crete, the captain was foolhardy enough to venture out into the stormy seas, on which his vessel was tossed for a miserable fortnight. The crew ‘lightened the ship and cast out the wheat into the sea’. The sailors managed to steer towards the island of Malta, beaching the ship, which, nevertheless, broke up. Paul says that the travellers were treated well by the ‘barbarians’ who inhabited the island; no one died, but Paul and everyone else became stuck on Malta for three months. Maltese tradition assumes that Paul used this time to convert the islanders, but Paul wrote of the Maltese as if they were credulous and primitive – he cured the governor’s sick father and was taken for a god by the natives. Once conditions at sea had improved, another ship from Alexandria that was wintering there took everyone off; he was then able to reach Syracuse, Reggio on the southern tip of Italy and, a day out from Reggio, the port of Puteoli in the Bay of Naples, to which the first grain ship had probably been bound all along; from there he headed towards Rome (and, according to Christian tradition, his eventual beheading).

Surprisingly, the Roman government did not create a state merchant fleet similar to the fleets of the medieval Venetian republic; most of the merchants who carried grain to Rome were private traders, even when they carried grain from the emperor’s own estates in Egypt and elsewhere. Around 200 AD, grain ships had an average displacement of 340 to 400 tons, enabling them to carry 50,000 modii or measures of grain (1 ton equals about 150 modii); a few ships reached 1,000 tons but there were also, as has been seen, innumerable smaller vessels plying the waters. Rome probably required about 40 million measures each year, so that 800 shiploads of average size needed to reach Rome between spring and autumn. In the first century AD, Josephus asserted that Africa provided enough grain for eight months of the year, and Egypt enough for four months. All this was more than enough to cover the 12,000,000 measures required for the free distribution of grain to 200,000 male citizens. Central North Africa had been supplying Rome ever since the end of the Second Punic War, and the short, quick journey to Italy was intrinsically safer than the long haul from Alexandria.