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Fault Lines

Weighing threats on land and from the sea

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In 25 years of writing magazine articles about some of the planet's more remote destinations, Leslie Allen never got to Tuvalu. She even began to wonder if it existed. Some world maps don't bother to show Tuvalu, a constellation of small islands scattered across 500,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean, and the United States maintains no embassy there. Her travel agent had never heard of the place and couldn't find it in her computer system. "It was eerie," says Allen, who wrote our cover story ("Will Tuvalu Disappear Beneath the Sea?"). "Only after I located the code for the country's only airport did I begin to make headway. But the travel agent thought I was pulling her leg when I gave her the airport code: FUN, for Funafuti, the capital city."

FUN may seem an ironic identifier for a nation worried about destruction by storms, flooding, rising seas and other possible consequences of global warming, but, says Allen, "after I finally got there, I found that most Tuvaluans live their lives pretty much like Californians living on the San Andreas fault: with concern but without panic. They're building homes, showing off their new hospital and, in general, planning for the long term. They're even having FUN."

Over the years Robert Wernick has written for Smithsonian about everything from the misunderstood goat to John Ringling, the circus king. His 84th article for this magazine—a record for features—is about Switzerland's legendary founding father ("In Search of William Tell"). "I believe that one of the reasons the Swiss have felt so close to William Tell all these hundreds of years is that he is so unlike what most foreigners think of as an average Switzer—cautious, conservative, beer-drinking, bankbook-balancing and eternally safe," says Wernick. "But the Swiss know that Switzerland is not as safe as all that. It is a valuable piece of property plunked down in the middle of Europe surrounded by mighty warlike nations.

Hitler could have gobbled it up in a few days, and plans were drawn up for an invasion. It was never carried out because the Swiss had put tons of explosives in the railway tunnels under the Alps, ready to blow the day the first German soldier crossed the frontier. Or so the Swiss believe. But one old man who had been part of this operation told me that the thrifty government had decided this would be too expensive—they only sent engineers to make excavations at the tunnel entrances. The country was full of German spies, of course, who could not all have been fooled, but they apparently thought it wiser not to let Berlin know the truth for the obvious reason that an invasion would have put them out of a job, and they would have been sent to the Russian front to get killed." Actually the Nazis glorified Tell (for a while), but then—let Wernick's story do the telling.

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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