Monthly Archives: January 2020

Gun designer John Browning is born

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gun-designer-john-browning-is-born

John Moses Browning, sometimes referred to as the “father of modern firearms,” is born in Ogden, Utah. Many of the guns manufactured by companies whose names evoke the history of the American West—Winchester, Colt, Remington, and Savage—were actually based on John Browning’s designs.

The son of a talented gunsmith, John Browning began experimenting with his own gun designs as a young man. When he was 24 years old, he received his first patent, for a rifle that Winchester manufactured as its Single Shot Model 1885. Impressed by the young man’s inventiveness, Winchester asked Browning if he could design a lever-action-repeating shotgun. Browning could and did, but his efforts convinced him that a pump-action mechanism would work better, and he patented his first pump model shotgun in 1888.

Fundamentally, all of Browning’s manually-operated repeating rifle and shotgun designs were aimed at improving one thing: the speed and reliability with which gun users could fire multiple rounds-whether shooting at game birds or other people. Lever and pump actions allowed the operator to fire a round, operate the lever or pump to quickly eject the spent shell, insert a new cartridge, and then fire again in seconds.

By the late 1880s, Browning had perfected the manual repeating weapon; to make guns that fired any faster, he would somehow have to eliminate the need for slow human beings to actually work the mechanisms. But what force could replace that of the operator moving a lever or pump? Browning discovered the answer during a local shooting competition when he noticed that reeds between a man firing and his target were violently blown aside by gases escaping from the gun muzzle. He decided to try using the force of that escaping gas to automatically work the repeating mechanism.

Browning began experimenting with his idea in 1889. Three years later, he received a patent for the first crude fully automatic weapon that captured the gases at the muzzle and used them to power a mechanism that automatically reloaded the next bullet. In subsequent years, Browning refined his automatic weapon design. When U.S. soldiers went to Europe during WWI, many of them carried Browning Automatic Rifles, as well as Browning’s deadly machine guns.

During a career spanning more than five decades, Browning’s guns went from being the classic weapons of the American West to deadly tools of world war carnage. Amazingly, since Browning’s death in 1926, there have been no further fundamental changes in the modern firearm industry.

John McEnroe disqualified from the Australian Open

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-mcenroe-disqualified-from-the-australian-open

On January 21, 1990, at the Australian Open in Melbourne, American tennis player John McEnroe becomes the first player since 1963 to be disqualified from a Grand Slam tournament for misconduct.

A left-handed serve-and-volleyer with a masterful touch, McEnroe was a dominant force in professional tennis in the early 1980s, winning three Wimbledon and four U.S. Open titles between 1979 and 1984, against such formidable opponents as Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. Over his career, he would win 17 total Grand Slams, including nine in men’s doubles and one in mixed doubles. His Davis Cup record was 41-8 in singles and 18-2 in doubles, and he helped the United States win five Cups. McEnroe’s masterful play was often overshadowed, however, by his explosive temper. Always a fan favorite, McEnroe was dubbed “Superbrat” by the British tabloids at the age of 20 and was famous on the tour for his constant arguments and badmouthing of umpires and linesmen.

At the 1990 Australian Open, the 30-year-old McEnroe was trying to win his first major tournament since the 1984 U.S. Open. On January 21, he took on Sweden’s Mikael Pernfors, a two-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion, in the fourth round. McEnroe won the first set easily, but Pernfors lifted the level of his game to win the second set. After the players traded service breaks in the third, McEnroe led 2-1. During the changeover, he stopped in front of a lineswoman he thought had made a bad call, glaring at her while bouncing a ball on his racket. The chair umpire, Gerry Armstrong, gave McEnroe a conduct code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Bigger trouble began in the seventh game of the fourth set, with McEnroe leading overall 6-1, 4-6, 7-5, 2-4. Hitting a forehand wide to go down 15-30, McEnroe threw his racket to the ground, where it bounced on the court’s hard surface. Another wide McEnroe forehand prompted another racket smash, this one cracking the racket’s head. Armstrong called another code violation, for racket abuse, and McEnroe started swearing at him, demanding the intervention of Ken Farrar, the Grand Slam chief of supervisors. Farrar arrived and spoke with McEnroe, whose continued complaints and swears were audible to spectators and TV viewers. With Farrar’s authorization, Armstrong called a third and final code violation: “Default Mr. McEnroe. Game, set, match.” The crowd of 150,000 rose to their feet, booing and chanting their support for McEnroe, as McEnroe himself stood with his hands on his hips, stunned. The last player to be disqualified from a Grand Slam for misconduct had been Willie Alvarez of Spain, in the 1963 French Open, 17 years earlier.

In a press conference following the match, a subdued McEnroe explained that he had misunderstood the rules, and was unaware that the previous year’s four-step process to default had been changed to a new three-step rule: first a warning, then a point penalty, then a default.

Battle of Khe Sanh begins

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/battle-for-khe-sanh-begins

One of the most publicized and controversial battles of the Vietnam War begins at Khe Sanh, 14 miles below the DMZ and six miles from the Laotian border.

Seized and activated by the U.S. Marines a year earlier, the base, which had been an old French outpost, was used as a staging area for forward patrols and was a potential launch point for contemplated future operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

The battle began on this date with a brisk firefight involving the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines and a North Vietnamese battalion entrenched between two hills northwest of the base. The next day North Vietnamese forces overran the village of Khe Sanh and North Vietnamese long-range artillery opened fire on the base itself, hitting its main ammunition dump and detonating 1,500 tons of explosives.

An incessant barrage kept Khe Sanh’s Marine defenders pinned down in their trenches and bunkers. Because the base had to be resupplied by air, the American high command was reluctant to put in any more troops and drafted a battle plan calling for massive artillery and airstrikes.

During the 66-day siege, U.S. planes, dropping 5,000 bombs daily, exploded the equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the area. The relief of Khe Sanh, called Operation Pegasus, began in early April as the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) and a South Vietnamese battalion approached the base from the east and south, while the Marines pushed westward to re-open Route 9.

The siege was finally lifted on April 6 when the cavalrymen linked up with the 9th Marines south of the Khe Sanh airstrip. In a final clash a week later, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines drove enemy forces from Hill 881 North. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, contended that Khe Sanh played a vital blocking role at the western end of the DMZ, and asserted that if the base had fallen, North Vietnamese forces could have outflanked Marine defenses along the buffer zone.

Various statements in the North Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper suggested that Hanoi saw the battle as an opportunity to re-enact its famous victory at Dien Bien Phu, when the communists had defeated the French in a climactic decisive battle that effectively ended the war between France and the Viet Minh.

President Carter pardons draft dodgers

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-carter-pardons-draft-dodgers

On January 21, 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter grants an unconditional pardon to hundreds of thousands of men who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

In total, some 100,000 young Americans went abroad in the late 1960s and early 70s to avoid serving in the war. Ninety percent went to Canada, where after some initial controversy they were eventually welcomed as immigrants. Still others hid inside the United States. In addition to those who avoided the draft, a relatively small number–about 1,000–of deserters from the U.S. armed forces also headed to Canada. While the Canadian government technically reserved the right to prosecute deserters, in practice they left them alone, even instructing border guards not to ask too many questions.

READ MORE: When President Carter Pardoned Draft Dodgers Only Half Came Back

For its part, the U.S. government continued to prosecute draft evaders after the Vietnam War ended. A total of 209,517 men were formally accused of violating draft laws, while government officials estimate another 360,000 were never formally accused. If they returned home, those living in Canada or elsewhere faced prison sentences or forced military service. During his 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter promised to pardon draft dodgers as a way of putting the war and the bitter divisions it caused firmly in the past. After winning the election, Carter wasted no time in making good on his word. Though many transplanted Americans returned home, an estimated 50,000 settled permanently in Canada.

Back in the U.S., Carter’s decision generated a good deal of controversy. Heavily criticized by veterans’ groups and others for allowing unpatriotic lawbreakers to get off scot-free, the pardon and companion relief plan came under fire from amnesty groups for not addressing deserters, soldiers who were dishonorably discharged or civilian anti-war demonstrators who had been prosecuted for their resistance.

Years later, Vietnam-era draft evasion still carries a powerful stigma. Though no prominent political figures have been found to have broken any draft laws, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney–none of whom saw combat in Vietnam–have all been accused of being draft dodgers at one time or another. President Donald Trump received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, once for bone spurs in his heels. Although there is not currently a draft in the U.S., desertion and conscientious objection have remained pressing issues among the armed forces during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Toyota officially passes GM as planet’s biggest car maker

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/toyota-officially-passes-gm-as-planets-biggest-car-maker

After more than seven decades as the world’s largest automaker, General Motors (GM) officially loses the title on January 21, 2009, when it announces worldwide sales of 8.36 million cars and trucks in 2008, compared with Toyota’s 8.97 million vehicle sales that same year. However, the news wasn’t all rosy for the Japanese auto giant, which later in 2009 posted its first-ever loss as a public company.

General Motors was founded in 1908 in Flint, Michigan, by horse-drawn carriage mogul William Durant. In 1904, Durant invested in the Buick Motor Company, which was started in 1903 by Scottish-born inventor David Dunbar Buick. Durant made Buick Motor the cornerstone of his new holding company, General Motors, then acquired Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Reliance Motor Company, among other auto and truck makers. In 1911, Durant founded Chevrolet Motor Company, which by 1918 was part of GM. By the early 1930s, GM passed the Ford Motor Company to become the world’s biggest auto maker and went on to experience decades of growth. In 1940, GM commemorated its 25-millionth American-made car and in 1967, it celebrated its 100-millionth U.S.-made vehicle. However, by 2008, GM, along with most of the auto industry, had been hit hard by the global economic crisis and slumping vehicle sales. In December of that year, President George W. Bush signed multi-billion-dollar government bailout loans for GM and fellow Big Three U.S. automaker Chrysler. On June 1, 2009, GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; it later emerged as a profitable company.

The roots of GM competitor Toyota Motor Corporation date to the late 1920s when Kiichiro Toyoda, who worked for his father’s Japan-based textile machinery business, Toyoda Loom Works, began plans to develop an automobile. In 1933, an auto division was formed within Toyoda Loom Works and two years later a prototype vehicle, the A1, debuted. In 1937, Toyota Motor Corporation was formed as a spinoff of Toyoda Loom Works. In 1947, Toyota produced its 100,000th domestically made vehicle and in the 1950s began exporting cars to America. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Toyota’s small, fuel-efficient vehicles experienced a boost in popularity in America and by the end of the 1990s, Toyota had produced over 100 million vehicles in Japan.

Concorde takes off

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/concorde-takes-off

From London’s Heathrow Airport and Orly Airport outside Paris, the first Concordes with commercial passengers simultaneously take flight on January 21, 1976. The London flight was headed to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, and the Paris to Rio de Janeiro via Senegal in West Africa. At their cruising speeds, the innovative Concordes flew well over the sound barrier at 1,350 miles an hour, cutting air travel time by more than half.

The flights were the culmination of a 12-year effort that pitted English and French engineers against their counterparts in the USSR. In 1962, 15 years after U.S. pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier, Britain and France signed a treaty to develop the world’s first supersonic passenger airline. The next year, President John F. Kennedy proposed a similar U.S. project. Meanwhile, in the USSR, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered his top aviation engineers to beat the West to the achievement.

There were immense technical challenges in building a supersonic airliner. Engines would need to be twice as powerful as those built for normal jets, and the aircraft’s frame would have to withstand immense pressure from shock waves and endure high temperatures caused by air friction. In the United States, Boeing tackled the supersonic project but soon ran into trouble with its swing-wing design. In England and France, however, early results were much more promising, and Khrushchev ordered Soviet intelligence to find out as much as possible about the Anglo-French prototypes.

In 1965, the French arrested Sergei Pavlov, head of the Paris office of the Soviet airliner Aeroflot, for illegally obtaining classified information about France’s supersonic project. Another high-level Soviet spy remained unknown, however, and continued to feed the Soviets information about the Concorde until his arrest in 1977.

On December 31, 1968, just three months before the first scheduled flight of the Concorde prototype, the fruits of Soviet industrial espionage were revealed when the Soviet’s TU-144 became the world’s first supersonic airliner to fly. The aircraft looked so much like the Concorde that the Western press dubbed it “Konkordski.”

In 1969, the Concorde began its test flights. Two years later, the United States abandoned its supersonic program, citing budget and environmental concerns. It was now up to Western Europe to make supersonic airline service viable before the Soviets. Tests continued, and in 1973 the TU-144 came to the West to appear alongside the Concorde at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport. On June 3, in front of 200,000 spectators, the Concorde flew a flawless demonstration. Then it was the TU-144’s turn. The aircraft made a successful 360-degree turn and then began a steep ascent. Abruptly, it leveled off and began a sharp descent. Some 1,500 feet above the ground, it broke up from overstress and came crashing into the ground, killing all six Soviet crew members and eight French civilians.

Soviet and French investigators ruled that pilot error was the cause of the accident. However, in recent years, several of the Russian investigators have disclosed that a French Mirage intelligence aircraft was photographing the TU-144 from above during the flight. A French investigator confirmed that the Soviet pilot was not told that the Mirage was there, a breach of air regulations. After beginning his ascent, the pilot may have abruptly leveled off the TU-144 for fear of crashing into this aircraft. In the sudden evasive maneuver, the thrust probably failed, and the pilot then tried to restart the engines by entering a dive. He was too close to the ground, however, and tried to pull up too soon, thus overstressing the aircraft.

In exchange for Soviet cooperation in the cover-up, the French investigators agreed not to criticize the TU-144’s design or engineering. Nevertheless, further problems with the TU-144, which was designed hastily in its bid to beat the Concorde into the air, delayed the beginning of Soviet commercial service. Concorde passenger service began with much fanfare in January 1976. Western Europe had won its supersonic race with the Soviets, who eventually allowed just 100 domestic flights with the TU-144 before discontinuing the airliner.

The Concorde was not a great commercial success, however, and people complained bitterly about the noise pollution caused by its sonic booms and loud engines. Most airlines declined to purchase the aircraft, and just 16 Concordes were built for British Airways and Air France. Service was eventually limited between London and New York and Paris and New York, and luxury travelers appreciated the less than four-hour journey across the Atlantic.

On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed 60 seconds after taking off from Paris en route to New York. All 109 people aboard and four on the ground were killed. The accident was caused by a burst tire that ruptured a fuel tank, creating a fire that led to engine failure. The fatal accident–the first in Concorde’s history–signaled the decline of the aircraft. On October 24, 2003, the Concorde took its last regular commercial flight.

Ronald Reagan becomes president

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ronald-reagan-becomes-president

Ronald Reagan, former Western movie actor and host of television’s popular “Death Valley Days” is sworn in as the 40th president of the United States.

More than any president since the Texas-born Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan’s public image was closely tied to the American West, although he was raised in the solidly Midwestern state of Illinois. In the 1930s, Reagan moved to California, where he became a moderately successful Hollywood actor. Thereafter, he always considered himself a true westerner in spirit.

Reagan’s image as a westerner was reinforced by his acting career. Although he acted in other genres as well, many of Reagan’s movies were B-grade Westerns like “Law and Order,” in which he played a sheriff who was the only law “from Dodge City to Tombstone!” When his movie career waned, Reagan made the transition to television as a host of the hugely popular showcase for western stories, “Death Valley Days.”

Reagan’s film and TV career not only won him public-name recognition but also helped establish his enduring “good-guy” reputation. A few of Reagan’s roles in non-western movies included men of questionable character, but in Westerns he usually played the brave and wholesome sheriff or cowboy who killed the outlaws, saved the school marm, and brought justice to the Wild West. Though it is difficult to estimate exactly how important such positive roles were for his subsequent political career, surely Reagan’s “white hat” movie image helped win him some confidence and votes.

Reagan’s politics also increasingly reflected the mythic western image of rugged independence and self-reliance. Although he had been a liberal New Deal Democrat as a young man, by the 1950s, Reagan had become a hard-line conservative. As president of the Screen Actor’s Guild (1947-52, 1959-60), he won national attention as an outspoken anticommunist, and he began to view even the mild federal socialism of the New Deal as destructive to individual initiative and freedom. Switching his allegiance to the Republican Party, Reagan won two terms as governor of California (1967-75), where he gained a devoted national following that helped him win the presidency.

During his eight years as president of the United States (1981-89), Reagan redefined the center in American politics, moving it away from the liberal Democrats and towards the conservative Republicans. Though his days as a western movie star were long past by then, Reagan continued to celebrate the mythic independence of the western pioneer as a parallel to modern conservatism. To drive home the point, Reagan made frequent and highly visible retreats to his California ranch, where he rode horses, fixed fences and cut firewood for the TV cameras. This president, Reagan’s actions seemed to say, was a self-reliant cowboy at heart and only a reluctant politician.

After a long struggle with Alzheimers disease, Reagan died on June 5, 2004. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

FDR inaugurated to second term

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/franklin-delano-roosevelt-is-sworn-in-as-president

On January 20, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is inaugurated for the second time as president, beginning the second of four terms in the office. His first inauguration, in 1933, had been held in March, but the 20th Amendment, passed later that year, made January 20 the official inauguration date for all future presidents. (The Constitution had originally set March 4 as the presidential inauguration date to make sure election officials had enough time to process returns and allow the winner time to travel to the nation’s capital.)

Since 1933, Americans have witnessed, either through radio or television, the swearing-in ceremonies of more than 12 presidents. Some have been more memorable than others.

Richard Nixon takes office

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/richard-nixon-takes-office

Richard Nixon is inaugurated as president of the United States and says, “After a period of confrontation [in Vietnam], we are entering an era of negotiation.” Eight years after losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, Nixon had defeated Hubert H. Humphrey for the presidency.

Shortly after taking office, Nixon put his new team in place. William Rogers replaced Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, Melvin Laird replaced Clark Clifford as Secretary of Defense, and Henry Kissinger replaced Walt Rostow as National Security Adviser.

In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of California and lost in a bitter campaign to Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown. Most observers believed that Nixon’s political career was over at that point, but by February 1968, he had sufficiently recovered his political standing in the Republican Party to announce his candidacy for president. Taking a stance between the more conservative elements of his party led by Ronald Reagan, and the liberal northeastern wing led by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.

For his running mate, he chose Spiro T. Agnew, the governor of Maryland. His Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was weakened by internal divisions within his own party and the growing dissatisfaction with the Johnson administration’s handling of the war in Vietnam. Although Nixon and Humphrey each gained about 43 percent of the popular vote, the distribution of Nixon’s nearly 32 million votes gave him a clear majority in the electoral college.