Eleven years into the new millennium and it’s still interesting (and fun) to look back and remember the history of the previous hundred years. Our current circumstances, both good and bad, find a foundation that was laid in the 20th century. From tragedy to triumph, the 20th century offers up a wealth of timeless memories that helped shape the future. Here are ten of the most memorable days from the 20th century.
10. December 7, 1941 (Attack on Pearl Harbor)
In the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 7 is a “date that will live in infamy.” 70 years later, these words are as true as they were when they were first uttered. The world of 1941 was engulfed, or on the verge of being engulfed, in war. The armies of Adolf Hitler had conquered the vast majority of Europe, and the armed forces of Imperial Japan had done much of the same in Asia and the Pacific. America, attempting mightily to maintain its neutrality, felt safe in the knowledge that two oceans separated it from the Axis powers.
Japan had other notions, however. At about 8:00 am on Sunday morning, planes from Japanese carriers struck the naval base at Pearl Harbor – home of the American Pacific fleet. The attack lasted less than two hours, during which the Japanese sank eight American battle ships, damaged to various degrees at least 13 other sips, and destroyed a number of planes. The impact of the attack was swift and immediate. America was in shock and angry, and all thoughts of being neutral vanished from the national consciousness. America declared war on Japan the next day (December 8) and the rest, as they say, is history.
9. November 22, 1963 (Assassination of JFK)
The Kennedy family has been referred to as “America’s Royal Family”, because of the special affinity that these iconic figures have in the hearts of many Americans. No Kennedy has been more beloved than John F. Kennedy. A former naval officer during World War II, US congressman, and US Senator, JFK was elected to the office of President of the United States in 1960. His leadership would be instrumental in America’s initial involvement in Vietnam, the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and aiding the Civil Rights Movement.
His time in office would tragically end during a campaign trip to Dallas, Texas. As he and his wife were being carried to a luncheon in an open convertible, three shots were fired. Two of the shots hit the President (one in the neck and another in the head). JFK was pronounced dead a few hours later. The country was in shock at such a brazen attack on the leader of the free world. Scenes of the assassination were captured in video. The assassin was believed to be Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested and subsequently murdered while in custody, before any trial was held. Conspiracy theories still abound concerning this assassination.
8. April 4, 1968 (Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States defined an entire generation of Americans. In the struggle for equality, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands above the rest. Indeed, Dr. King’s tireless efforts on behalf of the people of color are legendary and are a tribute to the ability of selfless sacrifice for a noble cause. While not everyone agreed with Dr. King and his non-violent approach, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing the plight of injustice and inequality to the forefront of the national consciousness.
At the height of his work, Dr. King’s life came to a tragic end at the hands of an assassin. While standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, it is believed that James Earl Ray took aim at Dr. King with a high powered, scoped rifle, and ended his life. Ray was eventually convicted of the assassination and sentenced to 99 years in prison. The immediate impact of the death of Dr. King, however, was tragically played out, as angry Americans took to the streets, rioting in over 100 cities around the country. Today, America honors the great service and life of Dr. King with a national holiday.
7. July 20, 1969 (Moon Landing)
When the Eagle landed on the moon, an entire nation rejoiced. The idea of space travel has captured the imagination of every child (and quite a few adults) since the first person looked up and gazed at the stars. For the generation of Americans that were coming to age in the 1950s, the possibility of space exploration became very real with the arrival of Sputnik (the first orbital satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957).
Indeed, from this point, a national race to space was being carried out between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1960, President Kennedy boldly announced that America would land on the moon within a decade. He wasn’t wrong. As millions of Americans (and really folks from around the world, as well) watched their televisions, astronaut Neil Armstrong exited the lunar module that had landed on the surface of the moon a few hours prior. America had made it to the moon first and, during a time of social upheaval and uncertainty, the injection of the national pride was a welcome relief. Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” continue to ring true, as the world looks towards the heavens for continued exploration.
6. January 28, 1986 (Challenger Disaster)
With success, there is also failure, and this is certainly the case with the American space program. While the program has had a number of fatal disasters, none was more graphically tragic than the fate that befell the space shuttle Challenger. When the Challenger launched on the fateful day of January 28, there was not much fanfare or coverage of the event. Space shuttle launches had become commonplace in the minds of both Americans and newscasters alike. Nevertheless, the cameras were rolling and captured, 73 seconds into Challenger’s takeoff, the space shuttle exploding. All seven crewpersons were killed, including a “civilian” (school teacher Christa McAuliffe) that had been trained to ride along.
With space travel becoming a commonplace occurrence, many couldn’t understand how such tragedy could take place. Investigations and finger-pointing ensued, and the space shuttle program was shut down for two years.
5. October 29, 1929 (Stock Market Crash)
With today’s economy being what it is, many may feel that it’s as bad as it ever has been. And while conditions today are certainly worrisome to many, it pales in comparison to the years of the Depression the nation faced in the late 1920s and 30s. Those years were set in motion as a result of the stock market crash in 1929.
During the period between 1927 and 1929, wealthy Americans began investing heavily in the stock market, and realizing very lucrative returns. This set off a flurry of activity, as many believed that anyone could get rich by investing in the stock market. Soon, stocks were becoming highly inflated beyond the actual worth of the companies they represented. Further, many investors began to invest on “margin”, which meant they were borrowing the money to pay for stocks, in the hope that they would be able to sell those stocks at a high enough price to repay the loan.
The speculation bubble burst in October of 1929, and the sell-off began. On October 29, the value of stocks fell an estimated $10 to $15 billion. The value that the market had accumulated in the previous two years was wiped out, and total losses were over $30 billion. It would take over a decade, and a World War, for the nation to recover.
4. November 9, 1989 (Tearing Down Of The Berlin Wall)
The Berlin Wall had stood as a chilling reminder to the world of the brewing “cold war” that was being carried out, primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nuclear devastation was a constant reality as the world’s two superpowers faced off with one another. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 as a means to prevent citizens of East Germany escaping to the west. This continuing exodus was draining East Germany (a puppet regime of the Soviet Union) of human resources, as well as being an embarrassment to Communist-oriented governments.
As the economic weight of maintain vast armed forces began to have a dire effect on the Soviet Union, political instability among Communist nations made the wall irrelevant. The Cold War was over, and so was the “life” of its most visible symbol. It began with average citizens of East Germany starting to pull down whole sections of the wall (without interference from government forces – which was on the verge of political collapse anyway). What started as a demonstration of sorts, morphed into an all-out effort to take the wall down. The next year, Germany was reunified as a single nation.
3. April 18, 1906 (San Francisco Earthquake)
The “Big One” has been the subject of more than a few big-budget disaster movies. While Hollywood has taken full advantage of the movie-going public’s taste for the dramatic, scientists and other concerned officials have long been concerned when the next disaster will strike. The question is not “if”, but rather “when” the next Big One will occur.
In this light, the devastating earthquake that struck San Francisco over 100 years ago still keeps the residents along the major fault lines on the American West Coast wary. For its part, the San Francisco quake seems like a scene taken right out a modern disaster movie. Registering an incredible 7.9 on the Richter scale, it is among the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. Well over 3000 people lost their lives, and several thousands more were injured.
The property damage was vast (an estimated 28,000 buildings were destroyed). Not only did the quake itself destroy buildings and other structures, but the resulting fires caused widespread carnage. To make matters worse, large tidal waves formed by the quake struck the city, causing further devastation. The San Francisco quake remains one of the deadliest disasters in American history.
2. August 6, 1945 (Hiroshima)
The dawn of the Atomic Age began with the deaths of 60,000+ residents of the city of Hiroshima, Japan. America (and its allies), having already defeated Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, now faced the very daunting task of bringing final defeat to Imperial Japan. The task would not be an easy one, as the Japanese had proved formidable in defending their home islands. It was estimated that well over 1 million American service men would lose their lives in an invasion of Japan.
As a result, it was decided to use a nuclear device in order to force Japan into total surrender. The first device (a second bomb was dropped in the city of Nagasaki) was dropped from an American Army Air Force bomber (the Enola Gay). Most of the city was destroyed, and many of those not killed outright would either succumb to injuries later or become homeless. To this day, thousands gather at the site where the bomb exploded for an annual interfaith memorial service. The destruction of Hiroshima stands as a vivid reminder of the terrible cost of the use of nuclear weapons.
1. January 1, 2000 (The New Millennium)
The first day of the 21st century wasn’t ushered in with quite the panic that many had imagined. Conspiracy theorist, cult leaders, and even to a certain degree, the general public; all were predicting…something to happen when the clock struck 12:01 am. There was widespread concern, for example, of the so-called Y2K bug that was supposed to incapacitate computers that were running Microsoft-operating systems. Others were predicting an expecting apocalyptic disasters, the end of the world, the return of Jesus Christ, and other phenomenon.
None of these things panned out, and the New Year came and went without any significant change to life on Earth. The cable music channel MTV2, however, did play Prince’s music video “1999” non-stop for 24 hours. That was pretty amazing! Still, everyone remembers where they were when they welcomed a new century, and that’s pretty cool, too!