“The shot heard round the world” is a phrase famously used to highlight the history-making importance of two events:
The first was the opening battles in April, 1775 of the American Revolution, at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. At the time it was one of 13 British colonies then showing increasing signs of rebellion in the face of King George III’s determination to bring them to heel on a number of issues, including taxes. A force of British regulars marched out from Boston to find and destroy American military supplies. They were confronted by local, irregular militia and driven back.
The world has not been the same since.
That history-changing event was later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem, Concord Hymn:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The second fateful event often referred to as “the shot heard round the world” was the assassination in June, 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Empire of Austria-Hungary. He was shot in Sarajevo by one of a group of pan-Slavic conspirators later found to have been recruited by high-ranking military intelligence officials of the Kingdom of Serbia.
The shooting of Archduke Ferdinand was an immediate cause of the First World War, as one by one the great European powers were drawn into conflict by the system of competing alliances that had been set up in the preceding years. On one side Russia lined up with Serbia and drew in France against Austria-Hungary and Germany. Great Britain and its Empire declared war against Germany in defence of Belgium neutrality when German armies attacked France through that small country. Semi-independent former British dominions, including Canada, soon followed suit.
But a war that was expected to last a few weeks or months turned into a titanic, global struggle that led to the downfall of the Russian Empire and the deaths of millions of soldiers on both sides before it finally ended four terrible years later. The declaration of war by the United States in 1917 was decisive in the defeat of Germany.
But rather than being the “war to end all wars” a bitter peace treaty set the stage for the rise to power in Germany of a madman and his murderous Nazi regime bent on world domination. Germans were the “master race,” he said, and promised them a new age of greatness and prosperity. That in turn led to the Second World War, the mass bombing of cities, and the deaths of many more millions of people, including the mass extermination of European Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be inferior beings. The full horror of that was not revealed until the war ended with the defeat of Nazism and the “death camps” were exposed to the world.
And in this context one can see that a disastrous continuum of events that began with that “shot heard round the world” reverberates to this day in many ways. Greater minds than mine, I presume, have written massive tomes chronicling and analyzing it in great detail; or if not, they should have, to be passed on to succeeding generations as among the essential, life and world-saving “lessons of history.”
But how soon we forget; that is the great tragedy of human imperfection, or as The Man said, forgive them Father, for they are stupid.
I am reminded again of the late Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Second World War Supreme Commander of Allied armies in the west, and former post-war U.S. President. He has often been, unfairly, characterized as not very bright. But his Farewell Address as President was a brilliant and prophetic warning to the American people to guard against the unfettered growth of “the military-industrial complex” at the fatal expense of America’s democratic process.
“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” Eisenhower said.
Cynics will say those were not his words; they’ll say speechwriters wrote them. And maybe they did. But as Commander-in-Chief Eisenhower had the wisdom and experience to know what he wanted to say. He took possession of them as he spoke his final Presidential words to his great country.
They were spoken in the context of a “shot heard round the word” that continued to reverberate in his time.
And it continues to this day, I would say, as Americans are caught up in fateful thought and consideration of what is “great” about America.
Is it military power, or even its once globally-dominant economic power?
Or is it the quality and strength of the “democratic processes” Eisenhower warned his country to guard against the rise of “misplaced power?”
American democracy is a strong, but fragile thing. The Founders devised a system of government with “checks and balances” designed to prevent any one branch, or one person for that matter, from acquiring too much power. They enshrined such fundamental freedoms as freedom of the press and freedom of religion, with separation of church and state, for good reason.
The current campaign leading to the U.S. presidential election on November 8 is suddenly, alarmingly close for a number of reasons, so the polls and the pundits say.
In years to come, as historians write more massive tomes about the decline and fall of the American empire – assuming there is a future to write history from – I can’t help but wonder if the “shot heard round the world” will turn out to have been a cough.
Let’s hope not, eh.
Let’s hope stronger together trumps hateful divisiveness and the deplorable, unscrupulous will to power
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in September, 2016