Friday, November 20, 2015

This Day In History...The Cuban Missile Crisis (Nov 20)

On this day in history, we look back 50 years to the end of one of the more important events in our nation’s history-the “Cuban missile crisis”, a major event in the lives of most of our parents and grandparents in that it was really the first time American citizens were made aware just how vulnerable they could be to nuclear weapons.  For while the Cuban missile crisis primarily took place during October, it wasn’t until November 20, 1962 that President John F. Kennedy ended the quarantine of Cuba, effectively bringing a total end to the crisis.

Coming out of World War 2, in which the USSR and USA were the largest forces, working together to eliminate a common threat (Germany) there was a great deal of distrust and tension between the two superpowers.  The Soviets were put off by America’s refusal to consider them a real part of the international community, and by the delay in America entering the second world war, while Americans were distrustful and dismissive of communism.  Activists were hard at work, demonizing communism at home, and the perceived threat from those communists in the USSR grew into a nation wide fear that fueled foreign policy decisions.

In 1946, diplomat George Kennan wrote the now famous “Long Telegram”, essentially outlining the strategy of “containment” that the US would employ against the Soviets.  Over the next 15 years the US would quadruple it’s military budget, beginning an arms race with the USSR, both powers competing with the other to develop the more destructive, more dominant weapons and sabotage the others’ efforts in doing so along the way.

Following the atom bombs the US dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was pretty clear to the world that nuclear type bombs were the route to dominance.  Throughout the late 40’s and early 50’s both countries worked feverishly to develop such technology, testing A and H bombs as part of their effort to one up the other.  Throughout this time in America, pop culture fed off the growing fears of the Cold War, with many movies and other forms of entertainment heavily focusing on the possibility of nuclear war, bombs going off, and even mutant creatures.  In response people built bomb shelters, drilled in preparation for such a conflict, and generally lived in a great deal of fear at times.  This all came to a head in late 1962.

The real beginning of the missile crisis, was in 1959 following the takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro.  Castro promptly aligned himself with the USSR, and became extremely reliant upon the Soviets for economic and military support.  As the two nations grew closer, their relationship evolved through one common enemy: the United States.  In October of 1962, the US discovered just how deep those feelings and that relationship ran, when the pilot of an American U-2 spyplane took photos of a nuclear armed Soviet SS-4 medium range ballistic missile in the process of being assembled and installed.

Upon hearing of this discovery, President Kennedy immediately formed what was known as the “executive committee” or “ExComm” for short.  Over the next 13 days, President Kennedy and his team entered into the most important negotiations in American history, as he faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, over their nuclear missiles, now being installed just 90 miles from American soil in Florida.

For 13 days negotiations continued between the two nations’ leaders.  Negotiations were tough, Soviets felt much more secure with missiles in Cuba, as the US had many sites in eastern Europe with their missiles, aimed at the USSR.  In what has become typical US fashion on foreign policy however, Kennedy felt that what was good for us, was not good for them and that the presence of Soviet missiles so close to US soil was unacceptable.  To that end, Kennedy ordered the US Navy to completely quarantine the island of Cuba, encircling the land and not allowing anyone in or out.  Although Soviet ships came, none ultimately tested that blockade, stopping just short and respecting the line drawn by the American naval forces.

With the quarantine set, JFK was able to turn his attention to the problem at hand-the missiles already in Cuba.  While negotiations continued, American and Cuban citizens alike grew restless.  Cubans of course, encircled by the American navy while Americans were on edge with the thought of nuclear war literally at their doorstep.  Ultimately however, a deal was struck-as was no doubt the idea in putting the missiles in Cuba to begin with from a Soviet perspective.

On October 26, 1962 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent two successive messages to JFK and “ExComm”.  The first offered the deal that the US officially accepted: we’ll remove our missiles from Cuba if you promise not to invade Cuba.  The second was a less public-but still accepted-deal on top of the first; take our missiles out of Turkey and we’ll take our missiles out of Cuba.  JFK ultimately accepted both deals-although only the one publicly-and the crisis was averted.  Robert Kennedy delivered the message to the Soviet diplomats himself, and on October 28 the crisis came to it’s official end.  Nearly a month later, following the removal of the final missile JFK ended the Cuban quarantine, withdrawing US naval forces from around the island.

The aftermath of this crisis was-somewhat oddly-a closer relationship between the two superpowers.  In 1963 a hotline was established, creating a direct link between DC and Moscow, with the idea of avoiding future conflicts like we saw in Cuba.  While the Cold War would last almost another 30 years and outlast both Kennedy and Khrushchev, October and November of 1962 were perhaps the most important months in the 46 years (1945-1991) that are labeled as the Cold War.  50 years later, regardless of who was right and who was wrong, the US stands alone and the USSR as something most Americans see on an old map and think “what is that?”  One way or another, those two months in 1962 taught everyone in the world one thing: nukes are not something to play around with, and talking often ends with everyone happier than war does.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This Day In History...The Palmer Peninsula (Nov 17)

On this day in history we’ll go beyond the borders of the United States, yet still bring you a piece of American history.  For on this day in history, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer became the first American to see Antarctica, forever earning his place in history and on our maps when the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica was named after him following his discovery.  While that named was challenged by the British in later years, even the compromise bears his name: The Palmer Land.

Nathaniel Palmer was born in Stonington, Conn. on August 8, 1799 to a shipyard owner.  Growing up around ships and the sea, it was only natural Palmer would end up on a ship and so he did, signing on as a seaman on a blockade-runner in the War of 1812 at the age of 14.  By 1818 he found himself as the second mate aboard a sealing vessel whose primary hunting ground was located near the newly discovered South Shetland Islands.

As one would expect, Palmer’s career progressed quickly, and by 1820 he was the captain of his own 47 foot sloop Hero.  As a part of a sealing fleet under the command of Benjamin Pendleton, Palmer hunted in the area of the South Shetland islands and Deception Island for new seal rookeries, and while doing so rediscovered the peninsula that British captain Edward Bransfield had discovered and mapped earlier that year, in January of 1820.  The British had named the peninsula “Trinity Land”, but following Palmer’s discovery the Americans named it the “Palmer Peninsula”, setting up the conflict and ultimate establishment of “Palmer Land” as the name years later.

Palmer returned to Stonington following this expedition, where he put together a new expedition.  On that ensuing expedition on which he captained the James Monroe and searched alongside British captain George Powell the two discovered the South Oarkney Islands, which they charted originally as the Powell Islands.  On this expedition they charted a more specific portion of the Antarctic Peninsula as “Palmer Land”, although even today the entire peninsula itself is often referred to simply as the Palmer Peninsula.  Despite extensive hunting in the Drake Passage throughout the past couple centuries, the area remains vibrant with life, particularly the humpback whale, pictured here.

Palmer spent the remainder of his days at sea, building a very noteworthy career as a merchant marine.  He made at least one trip from Boston to Hong Kong, and put a lifetime of knowledge on the water to work as the co-developer of the 19th century “Clipper” style ship.  Today he leaves his mark on the world in many ways, from the Palmer Peninsula to his 16 room Victorian mansion that still serves as a tourist attraction and was named a National Historic landmark in 1996 in his hometown of Stonington, Conn..  The most aptly named remembrance of Palmer however, has to be an “Icebreaker” ship, an ice capable research ship currently in service to the US National Science Foundation.  The ship was built for the NSF by Edison Chouest Offshore, and was launched in 1992.  Edison Chouest still owns the ship, however it remains in the service of the NSF.

The Nathaniel Brown house can still be toured today, in
Stonington, Conn.
In a time when many ship captains made their mark transporting slaves and selling humans, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer was able to make an honest living as one of the most successful merchant marines of his time.  He grew up around the sea, lived on the sea, and died at the ripe old age of 77, just about 6 weeks short of his 78th birthday, on June 21, 1877.  In his later years Palmer was very active in pleasure yachting, and died after returning to San Francisco from one final trip to China.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Day in History...Georgetown University Opens (Nov 15)

Through now, all my contributions have been so focused on negative happenings “on this day in history” that I wanted to take this day to write about a positive change in history.  On this day in history, in 1791 the doors to the first U.S. Catholic College-Georgetown University-opened for business.

The American revolution paved the way for religious freedom in our country, and when the Treaty of Paris was signed near the end of 1783, a plans for Catholic University were picked up almost immediately.  John Carroll-newly appointed head of the Catholic Church in America-began putting clergymen together to work on the plans, and by 1789 Carroll was ready to act on those plans, purchasing property that would later become known as “Dahlgren Quadrangle”.

With the property purchased, and the plans approved it was a short two years before the school was ready to operate.  On November 15, 1791 they officially opened their doors for business, and accepted their first student precisely one week later; on the 22nd.  That first student would be the first in a long line of successful former students of the University, a Mr. William Gaston.  Gaston would later become a Congressman, elected to represent North Carolina.  One of the most amazing things about Gaston?  He was just thirteen years old on that day in 1791, making him an extraordinary student in many ways.  Gaston did not ultimately graduate from Georgetown however, as he was forced to leave shortly after his acceptance due to illness, and eventually graduated from Princeton instead.

Since opening their doors, Georgetown University has been home to some of the most successful and important people our country has seen, including 12 heads of state, and countless other politicians.  Six current Senators and 13 seats in the House of Representatives studied there, as well as many members of royalty across the globe.  One thing is for sure-even if indirectly, this day in history helped build and mold the characters for many more important days to come.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

This Day In History...The Tehran Embassy Takeover (Nov. 4)

Throughout this election process, American-Iranian relations have been a main topic of conversation.  Whether through an ad on radio or television, talk shows, conversation with friends, or from the candidates themselves we as citizens have heard no end of analysis, breakdown, and sometimes fear-mongering on the topic.  What we don’t often hear, is much about the history of the connection between the two countries.  On this day in history, 33 years ago however, ties between the two countries took a permanent turn, perhaps forever setting the stage for the strained relations we see now.

Hostages pictured here, from the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979
1979 was a chaotic year in Iran, and really the end of a chaotic decade in the area as a whole.  Since 1953, when “The Shah of Persia” Mohammed Reza Pahleri was put into power through a CIA sponsored coup over the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh, Iranians had grown increasingly weary of American support of the dictator.  In January of 1979-lead by Ayatollah Kyomenei from his exile in France-what had merely been protests exploded into an all out revolution, from which the Shah fled with his family.

With his countrymen seeking to put him on trial for crimes against his own citizens, the Shah was on the run-and would never stop running.  On October 22, 1979 the Shah was allowed into New York City in order to receive treatment for cancer.  After putting him in power in ‘53, and supporting his regime throughout the 26 years following that-including naming the Shah the primary guardian of US interests in the Gulf-Iranians had had enough of American involvement in their politics, and thus his acceptance into New York was just another expression of support, and the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Thirteen days later, the citizens of Iran would make their own statement.

On November 4, 1979 while several hundred thousand students were marching through the streets, in an effort to commemorate the deaths of students shot on the campus of Tehran University a year earlier, a group of a few hundred students broke off and headed for the American embassy.  Upon reaching the embassy, this group scaled the walls and forced the doors open.  When they found they met no resistance from the Iranian Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) men stationed there, or the local police, this group pressed on, determined to take the embassy.  US Marines shot tear gas into the crowd, but they were able to secure the compound, taking 52 American hostages in the process.

The takeover was by and large non-violent, and one hostage taker even interviewed with reporters over the phone, assuring them that the hostages were in no real danger, that the takeover was merely a display of power, and that the hostages would be released in just a few days.  Despite these assurances, American concerns were not alleviated, and as days turned into weeks it became more and more clear that these hostages would not be released in any timely manner at all.

Almost immediately following the takeover, Iranian revolution leaders Mohsen Rezaei and Mohsen Rafiqdast arrived at the embassy, catching employees in the act of destroying classified documents.  They were able to stop them from destroying everything, and later used some of these documents against members of the transition government.  The quick arrival of these leaders, coupled with the fact that 45 of the 79 hostage takers identified were current or future IRGC members made many suspect that the embassy takeover was more planned than spontaneous.  These suspicions were confirmed when it was learned that many of the crowd that took the embassy actually brought sandwiches for lunch-packed the night before at the canteen of the Revolutionary Guards.  This is also likely part of the reason there was no resistance at the embassy-as the IRGC was charged with it’s defense.

Amidst chants of “Khomenei struggles, Carter trembles”, “Death to America’, and “America is the number one enemy” from the thousands of supporters that now surrounded the embassy, the leaders attempted to open negotiations with the Carter administration, demanding simply that the Shah be returned from his hospital bed in New York to Iran to stand trial for his crimes.

The Shah never did return to Iran, traveling to Panama following his surgery, and then to Egypt where he died on July 27, 1980, and not on the gallows students had constructed outside the embassy, complete with a poster which read “For the Shah”.

The 52 American hostages were held a total of 444 days, throughout the entire 1980 election cycle, and released minutes after Reagan was sworn into office.  Many attribute Carter’s loss to the Iranian hostage crisis, and his inability to bring it to an end.  In Carter’s defense he did everything he could short of sending the Shah to his death in Iran, from negotiations to a botched rescue attempt that ended with 8 American lives lost, 2 planes destroyed, and one dead Iranian civilian, nothing worked to end the crisis.

On January 19, 1981 with the signing of the Algiers Accords in Algeria, the hostage crisis was finally over.  The chief points in the Accords were that the US would cease interfering in Iranian internal affairs, and would remove trade sanctions on Iran.  In return, the American hostages would be freed and any Iranian debts to US institutions would be paid.  On January 20, 1981 just a few minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as the President of the United States, the American hostages were officially freed, and the crisis was finally over.