Monthly Archives: May 2019

Ford Motor Company signs agreement with Soviet Union

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ford-signs-agreement-with-soviet-union

After two years of exploratory visits and friendly negotiations, Ford Motor Company signs a landmark agreement to produce cars in the Soviet Union on this day in 1929.

The Soviet Union, which in 1928 had only 20,000 cars and a single truck factory, was eager to join the ranks of automotive production, and Ford, with its focus on engineering and manufacturing methods, was a natural choice to help. The always independent-minded Henry Ford was strongly in favor of his free-market company doing business with Communist countries. An article published in May 1929 in The New York Times quoted Ford as saying that “No matter where industry prospers, whether in India or China, or Russia, all the world is bound to catch some good from it.”

Signed in Dearborn, Michigan, on May 31, 1929, the contract stipulated that Ford would oversee construction of a production plant at Nizhny Novgorod, located on the banks of the Volga River, to manufacture Model A cars. An assembly plant would also start operating immediately within Moscow city limits. In return, the USSR agreed to buy 72,000 unassembled Ford cars and trucks and all spare parts to be required over the following nine years, a total of some $30 million worth of Ford products. Valery Meshlauk, vice chairman of the Supreme Council of National Economy, signed the Dearborn agreement on behalf of the Soviets. To comply with its side of the deal, Ford sent engineers and executives to the Soviet Union.

At the time the U.S. government did not formally recognize the USSR in diplomatic negotiations, so the Ford agreement was groundbreaking. (A week after the deal was announced the Soviet Union would announce deals with 15 other foreign companies, including E.I. du Pont de Nemours and RCA.) As Douglas Brinkley writes in “Wheels for the World,” his book on Henry Ford and Ford Motor, the automaker was firm in his belief that introducing capitalism was the best way to undermine communism. In any case, Ford’s assistance in establishing motor vehicle production facilities in the USSR would greatly impact the course of world events, as the ability to produce these vehicles helped the Soviets defeat Germany on the Eastern Front during World War II. In 1944, according to Brinkley, Stalin wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling Henry Ford “one of the world’s greatest industrialists” and expressing the hope that “may God preserve him.”

Architect of the Holocaust hanged in Israel

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/architect-of-the-holocaust-hanged-in-israel

Near Tel Aviv, Israel, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish question,” was executed for his crimes against humanity.

Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1906. In November 1932, he joined the Nazi’s elite SS (Schutzstaffel) organization, whose members came to have broad responsibilities in Nazi Germany, including policing, intelligence, and the enforcement of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. Eichmann steadily rose in the SS hierarchy, and with the German annexation of Austria in 1938 he was sent to Vienna with the mission of ridding the city of Jews. He set up an efficient Jewish deportment center and in 1939 was sent to Prague on a similar mission. That year, Eichmann was appointed to the Jewish section of the SS central security office in Berlin.

In January 1942, Eichmann met with top Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin for the purpose of planning a “final solution of the Jewish question,” as Nazi leader Hermann Goering put it. The Nazis decided to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Eichmann was appointed to coordinate the identification, assembly, and transportation of millions of Jews from occupied Europe to the Nazi death camps, where Jews were gassed or worked to death. He carried this duty out with horrifying efficiency, and between three to four million Jews perished in the extermination camps before the end of World War II. Close to two million were executed elsewhere.

Following the war, Eichmann was captured by U.S. troops, but he escaped a prison camp in 1946 before having to face the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal. Eichmann traveled under an assumed identity between Europe and the Middle East, and in 1950 he arrived in Argentina, which maintained lax immigration policies and was a safe haven for many Nazi war criminals. In 1957, a German prosecutor secretly informed Israel that Eichmann was living in Argentina. Agents from Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, were deployed to Argentina, and in early 1960 they finally located Eichmann; he was living in the San Fernando section of Buenos Aires under the name of Ricardo Klement.

In May 1960, Argentina was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its revolution against Spain, and many tourists were traveling to Argentina from abroad to attend the festivities. The Mossad used the opportunity to smuggle more agents into the country. Israel, knowing that Argentina might never extradite Eichmann for trial, had decided to abduct him and take him to Israel illegally. On May 11, Mossad operatives descended on Garibaldi Street in San Fernando and snatched Eichmann away as he was walking from the bus to his home. His family called local hospitals but not the police, and Argentina knew nothing of the operation. On May 20, a drugged Eichmann was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident. Three days later, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israeli custody.

Argentina demanded Eichmann’s return, but Israel argued that his status as an international war criminal gave them the right to proceed with a trial. On April 11, 1961, Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem. It was the first televised trial in history. Eichmann faced 15 charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. He claimed he was just following orders, but the judges disagreed, finding him guilty on all counts on December 15 and sentencing him to die. On May 31, 1962, he was hanged near Tel Aviv. His body was cremated and his ashes thrown into the sea.

Netanyahu elected prime minister of Israel

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/netanyahu-elected-prime-minister-of-israel

In what was regarded as a setback for the Middle East peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is narrowly defeated in national elections by Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, leader of the Labor Party, became prime minister in 1995 after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist.

Netanyahu, who promised to be tough on terrorism and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was at 47 the youngest prime minister elected in the country’s history. Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, he served in the Israel Defense Forces and during the 1980s was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. In 1988, he was elected to the Israeli parliament and served as deputy minister of foreign affairs from 1988 to 1991. In 1993, he became the Likud leader and three years later Israeli prime minister.

On May 18, 1999, after three years as prime minister, a stalled peace process, and epidemic political in-fighting within his cabinet led to his electoral defeat by Labor challenger Ehud Barak. During his concession speech that evening, Netanyahu also resigned as Likud Party leader.

In 2009, 2013, and 2015, he was reelected as prime minister.

The Boer War ends in South Africa

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-boer-war-ends

In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War.

The Boers, also known as Afrikaners, were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa. Britain took possession of the Dutch Cape colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, sparking resistance from the independence-minded Boers, who resented the Anglicization of South Africa and Britain’s anti-slavery policies. In 1833, the Boers began an exodus into African tribal territory, where they founded the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two new republics lived peaceably with their British neighbors until 1867, when the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region made conflict between the Boer states and Britain inevitable.

Minor fighting with Britain began in the 1890s and in 1899 full-scale war ensued. By mid-June of 1900, British forces had captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories, but the Boers launched a guerrilla war that frustrated the British occupiers. Beginning in 1901, the British began a strategy of systematically searching out and destroying these guerrilla units, while herding the families of the Boer soldiers into concentration camps. By 1902, the British had crushed the Boer resistance, and on May 31 of that year, the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, ending hostilities.

The treaty recognized the British military administration over Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and authorized a general amnesty for Boer forces. In 1910, the autonomous Union of South Africa was established by the British. It included Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the Cape of Good Hope, and Natal as provinces.

The BBC bans the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-bbc-bans-the-sex-pistols-god-save-the-queen

Thirty years after its release, John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten—offered this assessment of the song that made the Sex Pistols the most reviled and revered figures in England in the spring of 1977: “There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.” Timed with typical Sex Pistols flair to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the release of “God Save The Queen” was greeted by precisely the torrent of negative press that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had hoped. On May 31, 1977, the song earned a total ban on radio airplay from the BBC—a kiss of death for a normal pop single, but a powerful endorsement for an anti-establishment rant like “God Save The Queen.”

While some in the tabloid press accused the Sex Pistols of treason and called for their public hanging, the BBC was more moderate in its condemnation. In response to lyrics like “God Save The Queen/She ain’t no human being,” the BBC labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste”—a difficult charge to argue, and one the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have wanted to dispute. Even with the radio ban in place, however, and with major retailers like Woolworth refusing to sell the controversial single, “God Save The Queen” flew off the shelves of the stores that did carry it, selling up to 150,000 copies a day in late May and early June. With sales figures like that, it seems implausible that “God Save The Queen” really stalled at #2 on the official UK pop charts, yet that is where it appeared, as a blank entry below “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Rod Stewart, the ultimate anti-punk. Like every other effort to suppress the song, refusing even to print its name in the official pop charts played right into the Sex Pistols’ hands

Like naughty schoolboys concerned only with the approval of their peers, the Sex Pistols baited the British establishment throughout their brief career, but never more so than during the Silver Jubilee. When they took to the waters of the Thames and attempted to blast “God Save The Queen” from giant speakers loaded onto a boat chartered by Virgin Records chief Richard Branson, the police dutifully responded by chasing the boat down and arresting its passengers when they reached the dock. When members of Parliament threatened to ban all sales of the single, a Virgin spokesman replied: “It is remarkable that MPs should have nothing better to do than get agitated about records which were never intended for their Ming vase sensibilities.” Like the BBC ban announced on this day in 1977, these incidents only fed the controversy the Sex Pistols had set out to create.

Yankees and Rebels clash at Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks)

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/yankees-and-rebels-clash-at-battle-of-seven-pines-fair-oaks

As part of the Peninsula campaign, Confederate forces strike Union troops at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) in Virginia. During May 1862, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of George B. McClellan, slowly advanced up the James Peninsula after sailing down the Chesapeake Bay by boat. Confederate commander Joseph Johnston had been cautiously backing his troops up the peninsula in the face of the larger Union force, giving ground until he was in the Richmond perimeter. When the Rebels had backed up to the capital, Johnston sought an opportunity to attack McClellan and halt his advance.

That chance came when McClellan’s forces were straddling the Chickahominy River. The swampy ground around the river was difficult to maneuver, and the river was now a raging torrent from the spring rains. A major storm on May 31 threatened to cut the only bridge links between the two wings of the Union army.

Johnston attacked one of McClellan’s corps south of the river on May 31 in a promising assault. The plan called for three divisions to hammer the Federal corps from three sides, but the inexperienced Confederates were delayed and confused. By the time the attack came, McClellan had time to muster reinforcements and drive the Rebels back. A Confederate attack the next day also produced no tangible results. The Yankees lost 5,000 casualties to the Rebels’ 6,000.

But the battle had two important consequences. McClellan was horrified by the sight of his dead and wounded soldiers, and became much more cautious and timid in battle, actions that would eventually doom the campaign. And since Johnston was wounded during the battle’s first day, Robert E. Lee replaced him. Lee had been serving as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor since his undistinguished service in western Virginia during the war’s first year. The history of the war in the eastern theater drastically changed as Lee ascended the ranks. His leadership and exploits soon became legend.

The Johnstown Flood

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-johnstown-flood-2

In a river valley in central Pennsylvania, heavy rain and a neglected dam lead to a catastrophe in which 2,209 people die and a prosperous city, Johnstown, is nearly wiped off the face of the earth.

Johnstown, located at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River and Stony Creek, was 14 miles downstream from Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir turned recreational lake that was owned and maintained by the prestigious South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The sporting club, which catered to a wealthy clientele from nearby Pittsburgh, included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick on its membership rolls. Lake Conemaugh was held back by the South Fork Dam, a large earth-fill dam that was completed by the club in 1881. By 1889, the dam was in dire need of repairs.

When several days of heavy rain struck the area in late May 1889, club officials struggled to reinforce the neglected dam, which was under tremendous pressure from the swollen waters of Lake Conemaugh. The dam began to disintegrate, and on May 31 the lake’s water level passed over the top of the dam. Realizing that the dam’s collapse was imminent, club officials sent riders down the valley to evacuate area residents. However, flooding was a familiar occurrence in the valley, and few Johnstown residents heeded the riders’ desperate warnings. Most just took the same simple precautions they did when Little Conemaugh River flooded: They moved their belongings to the second story of their homes and settled down to wait out the storm.

At 3:10 p.m., the South Fork Dam washed away, drowning several laborers who were struggling to maintain it. Club officials on high ground watched awe-struck as 20 million tons of water went roaring down the valley toward Johnstown. The deluge swept through the communities of South Fork, Mineral Point, Woodvale, and East Conemaugh, accumulating debris, including rocks, trees, houses, barns, railroad cars, animals, and people, both dead and alive. By the time it reached Johnstown, at 4:07 p.m., the flood appeared as a rolling hill of debris more than 30 feet high and nearly half a mile wide. In a terrible swoop, the northern half of the city was swept away, sending some 1,500 demolished Johnstown buildings tumbling down with the roaring torrent.

It took 10 minutes for the waters of Lake Conemaugh to pass through Johnstown, and 2,000 people were drowned or crushed in the torrent. A few survivors were washed up along with numerous corpses several miles down the valley. At the old Stone Bridge in Johnstown, debris piled 40 feet high caught fire, and some 80 huddled survivors of the flood perished in the flames. A total of 2,209 died as a result of the disaster.

Among the survivors of the calamity, there was a scarcely an individual who had not lost a friend or relative in the Johnstown Flood. Despite the great scale of the tragedy, reconstruction of the devastated community began almost immediately, and Clara Barton and the American Red Cross constructed shelters for homeless residents while well-wishers around the country sent tons of relief supplies. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was widely criticized for its failure to maintain the South Fork Dam, but no successful lawsuits were ever brought against the organization.

Civil War dead honored on Decoration Day

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/civil-war-dead-honored-on-decoration-day

By proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first major Memorial Day observance is held to honor those who died “in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Known to some as “Decoration Day,” mourners honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

The 1868 celebration was inspired by local observances that had taken place in various locations in the three years since the end of the Civil War. In fact, several cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo–which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866–because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

By the late 19th century, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day, and after World War I, observers began to honor the dead of all of America’s wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. It is customary for the president or vice president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. More than 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually. Several Southern states continue to set aside a special day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day.

Mariner 9 departs for Mars

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mariner-9-departs-for-mars

The U.S. unmanned space probe Mariner 9 is launched on a mission to gather scientific information on Mars, the fourth planet from the sun. The 1,116-pound spacecraft entered the planet’s orbit on November 13, 1971, and circled Mars twice each day for almost a year, photographing the surface and analyzing the atmosphere with infrared and ultraviolet instruments. It gathered data on the atmospheric composition, density, pressure, and temperature of Mars, and also information about the surface composition, temperature, and topography of the planet.

When Mariner 9 first arrived, Mars was almost totally obscured by dust storms, which persisted for a month. However, after the dust cleared, Mariner 9 proceeded to reveal a very different planet–one that boasted enormous volcanoes and a gigantic canyon stretching 3,000 miles across its surface. The spacecraft’s cameras also recorded what appeared to be dried riverbeds, suggesting the ancient presence of water and perhaps life on the planet. The first spacecraft to orbit a planet other than earth, Mariner 9 sent back more than 7,000 pictures of the “Red Planet” and succeeded in photographing the entire planet. Mariner 9 also sent back the first close-up images of the Martian moon. Its transmission ended on October 27, 1972.