The Balkans

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The Balkans

The Balkans

The lightning struck in the Balkans when an unbalanced young man shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the double imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914. At first it did not seem serious. However, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany urged his somewhat senile cousin, Emperor Franz Josef, to make an issue of the case with Serbia. Imperial Russia rushed to the defence of her fellow Slays, and the situation tightened as Germany backed Austria and France held to her alliance with Russia.

It was all so ridiculously trivial that most Americans paid no heed until the last terrible week of July 1914, when European civilization fell apart before their horrified eyes.

Suddenly naked hate fired the hearts of normally kindly human beings, and crowds were marching on Unter den Linden and the Champs Elys�es and the Nevski Prospect. Then the troops were marching with bands playing and pretty girls throwing flowers and everybody cheering. Gaily they went, because the peace had been so long that men had forgotten about war.

Suddenly the trains stopped running, the borders shut with a bang, and the whole vast, intricate mechanism of international finance stopped like an engine when the drive shaft breaks. Suddenly guns began going off along the frontiers.

And suddenly 150,000 panic-stricken Americans wanted to go home. There were not enough ships in all the seven seas to take them, and most of the big liners were held in port for safety's sake. There were not enough hotel rooms in Paris and London to hold the crowds that fled back to the cities in the hope of finding transportation home. Worst of all, nobody could get any money; that is, nobody but holders of American Express Travellers Cheques.

This situation came about because when international exchange broke down the banks stopped paying on foreign letters of credit or any other form of foreign paper. They were obliged to do this, for if they paid out, say francs against dollars, they had no way of selling the dollars to cover their commitments, and they had no way of figuring what the exchange rate would be.

In August, the biggest tourist month, American Express always forehandedly carried large deposits in foreign banks and gold and currencies in its own vaults. Since these balances were already converted to the currency of the respective countries, American Express could draw on them even though international exchange had collapsed. And American Express did draw on them. In addition, it hastily improvised other ways of acquiring cash. One was to make an agreement with the friendly London and Southwestern Railway whereby all the hard money paid by passengers for tickets was turned over to the company in exchange for its commitment to repay no matter what the eventual rate of exchange might be. Some of these silver shillings and golden sovereigns were shipped to Paris to relieve the special stringency of cash caused by the huge crowds of Americans there.

By these and other means American Express officials in Europe saw to it that all holders of American Express Travellers Cheques were paid in the currency of the country at the rate of exchange printed on the face of the Cheque.

Dalliba's face was no longer gay as he watched the crowds of Americans storming the doors of 11 Rue Scribe while the sweating gendarmes tried to keep them from crushing each other to death. It was lined with worry and white with fatigue. Like all his staff and the staffs of the other American Express offices in Europe, he was working eighteen hours a day to help his fellow countrymen get money and get home. This was the first great crisis that American Express faced as a world organization. It was totally unprecedented, appallingly sudden, and conceived in an atmosphere of terror, as the thud and rumble of German guns began to be audible in Paris during the quiet summer nights. It was a call to service beyond the expectation of duty or even the limitations of the possible.

Yet it was done. Somehow the tourists were taken care of; first financially, and then, as the boats began to sail again, with transportation home. No one could be fussy. Pile eight people in a cabin for four, and let the odd ones sleep on deck. Anything to get home.

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In 1914 President Fargo was an old man, and very ill. He had served the company brilliantly for many years, guiding its destiny with skill and courage through difficult and dangerous times, through the crises after the Civil War and the great battles among the rival express companies, through boom and depression, neither over expanding in good times nor fearfully cowering in bad. Though he had sometimes blocked the path of progress, he had more than compensated for that when by his vision and foresight he evoked the Money Order and the Travellers Cheque which today are the great bulwarks of American Express.

He was a martinet, but no despot demanding subservience. He was abrupt and concise in speech and manner, but just and ever honourable. He feared no man, nor would he truckle for favours. Once when a high official of a great steamship line which had the power to give much business to American Express was rude to Fargo in the latter's own office,... see: THE WORLD GOES TO WAR

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