Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Watershed Moment

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 8, 2013

A watershed moment is a critical point that marks a crucial change and results in profound effects due to that change. For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria allowed the U.S. to emerge as a superpower.

Had the assassination not happened, there never would have been widespread shock across Europe. Had there not been widespread shock across Europe, there never would have been reason to write the July Ultimatum. Had the July Ultimatum never been written, there would have never been reason to issue a declaration of war. Had there never been a reason to issue a declaration of war, the Secret Treaty of 1892 obliging Russia and France to go to war against Austria, Hungary and Germany (and eventually Italy) making the war a World War. Had there not been a World War, the United States of America would not have had the opportunity to emerge as a superpower.

That’s a watershed moment!

On November 28, 2010, the Seattle Times published a column by guest columnist. Frederick Lorenz, senior lecturer at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and senior peace fellow with the Public International Law and Policy Group. The topic was the future of international justice and offered Mr. Lorenz’s opinion on the role that major powers should take in this matter. The OpEd piece was entitled:

Watershed Moment For International Justice At The Hague

Politics seems to be where most watershed moments are reported. The Spokane Daily Chronicle published an article by Smith Hempstone on June 7, 1976 that reported on Spain’s watershed moment. The headline read, “Spain Seeks Strong Ties With Americans.” Among many changes in Spain was the fact that the first free elections in more than 40 years was scheduled to happen the following year. This change in Spanish politics was a major turning point in history, and the newspaper reported the following:

At this watershed moment in Spain’s history, the U.S. Senate has before it a five-year treaty of friendship and cooperation and providing for continued American use of U.S. naval facilities at Rota and of air bases at Torrejon, Saragossa and Moron. In return, Spain would receive $1.05 billion in loans for the purchase of military equipment plus Export-Import Bank credits, and $170 million in grants for other projects. This represents a quadrupling of the funds previously made available to Spain and an upgrading from executive agreement to treaty of the relationship between the two countries.

In the August 6, 1959 edition of the Spokesman Review, the newspaper reported that the Republican right-wing was sensitive about comments being made about Vice-President Richard Nixon’s relationship with the Russians. Previous to the phrase being “watershed moment” it seems that what watershed was being discussed was made clear through added details as was done in this article.

Entirely apart from political considerations, there will also be Americans who find the change of direction emotionally difficult. Yet, it seems clear that another watershed of history is here and demanding exactly the kind of direction that the President proposes to give it.

The Regina Leader-Post published an article entitled, “Mankind On The Great Divide” on January 23, 1948 that reported on then-Saskatchewan Premier Douglas, and Walter Tucker’s address to the Rotary club on the subject of Russian policy of indirect aggression towards the Western world. The second paragraph of the story dealt with the position America had on this indirect aggression.

Undoubtedly the Marshall project, which came out of the much-maligned United States, is one of the greatest factors for peace in the world today, and it may well prove that Secretary Marshall’s Harvard speech was the true watershed of the post-war period.

On August 3, 1938 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story entitled, “The Balkan States: Growing Fear Of Germany.” The story had to do with Austria’s loss of independence, the Balkan States were in danger of also being overtaken by Germany by way of complicated trade schemes and disregard for their independence. A basic overview of recent history was provided in the article and French commentator and essayist “Pertinax” aka André Géraud (18 October 1882 – December 1974) was quoted.

“March 7, 1936.” declares “Pertinax,” “appears as a decisive date in the diplomatic history of Central Europe — a watershed between two political continents. So long as the Rhine was free from German fortifications, the French Army at any time could bring irresistible pressure to bear on Hitler’s Reich. It could warn it to respect the independence of the Danubian States. It cold say ‘Thus far, and no farther.'”

Jumping back another decade, on October 18, 1925 the New York Times published an article entitled, “Locarno and The League.” The first paragraph read:

Mr. Austen Chamberlain called the Locarno Treaty “a watershed between war and peace.” It is a striking phrase — doubly significant as coming from the nation and from the man who have been roundly accused of “knifing” the Geneva Protocol. It recalls a prior saying, much ridiculed in the Senate of the United States.

And a decade before that, on July 14, 1916 the Montreal Gazette quoted British Minister of War, David Lloyd George in the article entitled, “Victory’s Tide Flower Towards Allies’ Arms.” The article printed that the Minister had said to reporters the day before:

“The overwhelming victories won by the valiant solders of Russia have struck terror into the hearts of our foes, and these, coupled with the immortal defence of Verdun by our indomitable French comrades  and the brave resistance of the Italians against overwhelming odds in the Southern Alps, have change the whole complexion of the landscape. Now, the combined offensive in the east and west has wrenched the initiative out of the hands of the enemy — never, I trust, to return to his grasp. We have crossed the watershed and now victory is beginning to flow in our direction. Why have our prospects improved? The answer is, the equipment of our armies has improved enormously and is continuing to improve.”

In fact, the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary provided this as one of three definitions for watershed:

3.  a point in time marking an important transition between two situations, or phases of an activity; a turning point.

And so while the origins of the phrase are rooted somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century,the actual phrase does not appear in print until some time in the early 1950s.

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