This blog post is just an exercise in historical silliness. There is no way you could come up with this personal list of big deal dates if you asked Google or Bing. It is just MY list, 13 events.
Barack Obama wins the American Presidency. The world went crazy, the worldcelebrated, America had elected a black man President, America had grown up! Even in the USA, Obama had a 76% approval rating following his inauguration, so even conservative Republicans were glad for America (for a short while). It was quite an event, you could feel it!
“September 11,” “9/11,” Muslim terrorists destroy the World Trade Center. Need I say more? This was the first time our nation (Hawaii was not a state when Pearl Harbor was attacked) had been attacked since the British made war on us twice between 1775 and 1815. We are vulnerable and we have never recovered our sense of security.
July 20th & 21st, 1969
Neil Armstrong walks on the Moon. “The Eagle has landed” happened on July 20th and Armstrong took his walk (“That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”) on the 21st. I remember watching it on a huge TV screen somewhere in Central Park in New York City, but that may be a mythological memory. Once again, a world changing event, the dawn of space exploration, Star Trek, here we come!
November 22nd, 1963
JFK is Shot. We had radios on in the US Army motor pool and we knew within seconds that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Many of us suspected then (and many still do) that Cuba had something to do with the assassination. The free-spirited sixties came to an abrupt close on this day in 1963. Life has never been the same since, they lost their innocence that day. And the “culture wars” that began back then are still being played out, and the children of JFK are not doing too well at all.
October 4th, 1957
Sputnik. The real beginning of the Space Age. The Soviet Union had beat us into space and we did NOT feel very “exceptional” that day. President Eisenhower then authorized the National Defense Education Act, a program that subsidized young Americans who wanted to go into math and science and technology, a program that jump-started a generation into space (and personal computers and the Internet and smart-phones for everybody).
May 8th / August 15th, 1945
V-E (Victory in Europe) and V-J (Victory in Japan) Day. World War II is over and the good guys won! Yeah for the Free World and its new leader, the USA! Americans younger than 50 have no idea of the scale of World War II. The fatalities were some 70 to 85 million souls, and our own casualty list numbered over 400,000. The number of American men in uniform (16,000,000!), the number of men in theaters of combat, was 20% of the male population of the whole country; whereas since then (Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq-Afghanistan) we have not budged past 2% of the male population (less than 1% today). With the exception of the Revolutionary era, the Civil War, and the Great Depression, World War II was the biggest test our nation has ever had to endure. It was a big deal and few are alive today who know this in their bones. Most of you – most of US – are lucky to never have experienced such a world.
December 7th, 1941
Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese! FDR proclaimed it “a date which will live in infamy.” While we had remained officially neutral from the war’s start (September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland), we were not totally caught by surprise as the administration was waiting for a pretext to take an isolationist USA into a world war. And Japan provided it. We were all in by the next day, when we declared war on Japan. “The Greatest Generation” is a clear reference to the men and women who fought in this war; and it was an expression of profound gratitude that their grown-up sons felt they owed their fathers before they passed. This awful war – six years of world-wide carnage – was one of the most formative events in our nation’s recent history, in many contradictory ways.
November 1st, 1938
The Match Race. The thoroughbred Match of the Century, between the upstart Seabiscuit and the blue-blood Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. The underdog, an “old” 5 year old thoroughbred from the West, upset the greatest thoroughbred of his time that day, conclusively. Why am I including such a trivial event in this list? It was the middle of the Depression, and the race was a matchup, not just of two great horses, but of two kinds of Americans: the little guys who were suffering and their capitalist overlords. Nonetheless, many bosses gave their employees the day off. And, in 1938, a horse, Seabiscuit, garnered more column inches of newstype than any man, FDR and Hitler included. A phenomenon.
October 30th, 1938
Halloween in America. Europe is at war. But the United States is still playing a waiting game. Orson Welles, a brilliant 23 year old radio actor, and his Mercury Theatre, put on a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds that caused a minor panic among its many American listeners, some of whom actually fled the comfort of their own homes and ran for the hills. Read about it. What does it prove? That Americans are gullible, that we believe everything we hear, no matter how unlikely. Or maybe this is true of human beings in general. We Americans, we humans, have dark souls.
October 29th, 1929
Black Tuesday. The stock market collapses. The Great Depression begins. September 1929 through August 1945, the extent of the Great Depression and World War II, was a time that most if not all of my readers can barely imagine. People worldwide live today like we lived then, just it is so far from the modern American experience that it remains a fantasy for most of us. But it was real. 25% unemployment. Sounds like 75% were untouched. Most Americans were touched directly, went jobless, at one time or another. It took until 1954 – 25 years with a war to thank – for the market to return to its giddy Roaring Twenties heights.
May 20th – 21st, 1927
Charles Lindbergh flies solo across the Atlantic Ocean, New York to Paris, in The Spirit of St. Louis (which can still be seen in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum (you walk beneath it as you enter the museum from the National Mall)). An amazing feat of derring-do, a fitting and heroic symbol of the Roaring Twenties. As an aside, Lindbergh was criticized in the late 1930’s for being a friend of fascists as he worked to keep us out of the European war. Until Pearl Harbor – when he went all in, and flew 50 combat missions.
July 21st, 1925
The Scopes Trial. The Monkey Trial. The Trial of the Century (one of many trials to be thus honored). Charles Darwin. Creationism. The ACLU. William Jennings Bryan. Clarence Darrow. H.L. Mencken. What a cast! What a show. Tennessee won, in actual fact, as John Scopes was found guilty of teaching Evolution in his high school biology class, which had recently been made illegal by the midget minds of the Tennessee legislature. But, of course, Scopes and Darrow and Darwin and science really won. Mencken had a field day. Read his commentary. The United States is home to more Evolution deniers than any other Christian nation in the world. God bless our freedom of belief! God bless Clarence Darrow for his non-belief! And H.L. Mencken for his Satanic tongue!
September 14th, 1901
Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt sworn in as President. The Rough Rider takes the reins of the Presidency and the Progressive Era begins. I confess I do not know how to collapse this into a few sentences. Read about the first Roosevelt, he is as fascinating as FDR, as Lincoln and as Jefferson. What a bundle of contradictions, but none of them half-lived.
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A brief history of the evolving character of the American people can be seen in 3 or 4 broad, but deep, brush strokes on a large canvas. Those strokes are: the Revolutionary period (1763 – 1804), the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and the Great Depression and the Great War (1929 – 1945).