Anniversaries mark the passage of time, recall our triumphs, and honor our losses. Two thousand twenty witnessed many significant anniversaries: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II, the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the World Trade Organization to name a few. Two thousand twenty-one will also see anniversaries of many significant events in history. Here are ten to note:
Tenth Anniversary of the Arab Spring, 2011. The Arab Spring was triggered by Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunis in December 2010. Faced with rising pro-democracy protests dubbed the Jasmine Revolution, longtime Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in mid-January. Less than a month later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after thirty years in power. By mid-March, protests against the Assad regime had sparked the Syrian civil war. Days later, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s threat to show “no mercy or compassion” for protestors led the United States and NATO to intervene; seven months later, Qaddafi was killed by rebel forces. The uprisings raised hopes of a new era of democratic government in the Arab world. Those hopes were dashed. Egypt’s democratic experiment was a false dawn; by 2013 authoritarian rule had returned. The Syrian civil war has killed roughly 400,000 people, displaced 6.2 million internally, and turned 5.6 million into refugees. Libya remains embroiled in its own civil war. Only Tunisia has emerged better for its travails. Last year, Tunisians chose a president in free and fair elections for just the second time in the country’s history.
Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Long Telegram, February 26, 1946. Diplomatic cables rarely make history. The cable George F. Kennan sent from Moscow back to the State Department in late February 1946 is a notable exception. Earlier that month, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin delivered a fiery speech in which he called the wartime alliance with the West a thing of the past. Asked by Washington to explain Stalin’s remarks, Kennan, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, responded with a 5,000-word cable. This so-called Long Telegram argued that the United States could not influence Soviet policy by offering carrots because powerful internal dynamics drove Moscow’s behavior. The United States instead needed to recognize that the Kremlin “is highly sensitive to the logic of force.” Kennan published a revised version of the Long Telegram a year later in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” Despite many revisions, the critical point remained unchanged: “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Kennan’s assessment of Soviet policy provided the intellectual basis for the containment policy that guided U.S. strategy for the next four decades—even if he didn’t always agree with how his ideas were applied in practice.
Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech, March 5, 1946. Politicians give speeches all the time. Most of what they say is quickly forgotten. But occasionally a politician gives a speech that defines an age. That is precisely what happened on March 5, 1946, when Winston Churchill spoke at tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. “Winnie” was no longer prime minister by the time he arrived on campus; British voters had tossed him and his Conservative Party from power eight months earlier. Now a private citizen, he called for a “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain and warned that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” In his view, the West had no choice but to resist Soviet expansionism: “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength.” After he finished speaking, Churchill said he hoped he “started some thinking that will make history.” But much of the initial reaction to his remarks was negative as critics complained he was fearmongering. It was only with time that Americans came to see the “Iron Curtain” speech as prophetic.
Tenth Anniversary of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, March 11, 2011. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan’s eastern coast 230 miles north of Tokyo on March 11, 2011, was horrific. The largest ever recorded in Japan, the earthquake triggered a tsunami with thirty-foot waves. More than 15,000 people were killed, and more than a million buildings were partially or totally destroyed. But the disaster didn’t stop there. The tsunami disabled the generators powering the cooling pumps at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As a result, three nuclear reactors melted down, creating the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. As a result of the disaster, Japan subsequently shut down many of its nuclear reactors, cutting the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix from about 30 percent in 2011 to just 3 percent in 2017. To replace that lost energy, Japan is now building coal-burning power plants, which will exacerbate the risks of climate change and undercut Japan’s goal of achieving a carbon-neutral society by 2050. Meanwhile, the Japanese government also continues to struggle with how to dispose of the 1.2 million tonnes of radioactive wastewater currently stored in holding tanks at the plant.
Fiftieth Anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy, April 1971. Sometimes relationships can be repaired in unexpected ways. That’s what ping-pong did for U.S.-China ties. Relations between the two countries went into a deep freeze after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. China’s entry into the Korean War a year later sealed the rift. A rapprochement began, however, in April 1971 during the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. Glenn Cowan, a nineteen-year-old member of the U.S. team, stepped onto a bus carrying China’s team. Zhuang Zedong, the Chinese team’s best player, shook Cowan’s hand, and speaking through an interpreter, gave him a silk-screen print. This initial meeting was likely orchestrated by the Chinese government. The next day Cowan gave Zhuang a t-shirt printed with a peace symbol and the words “Let It Be.” Their exchange became the talk of the tournament, and within days Mao had invited the U.S. team to visit China before returning home. The group became the first Americans to visit China in twenty-two years. In the wake of the visit, secret conversations between the capitals picked up steam, opening the path for Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China in February 1972.
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publishing of the Pentagon Papers, June 13, 1971. Daniel Ellsberg initially supported the Vietnam War. But working at the RAND Corporation on a top-secret project on the war’s origins fueled his disillusionment about the conflict. In late 1969, a year after the project ended, Ellsberg secretly photocopied the report he had helped prepare. It showed that the Lyndon Johnson administration had misled Congress and the American public about the war’s origins and the prospects for victory. Ellsberg spent the next year trying to persuade senators opposed to the war to release the report. He finally turned to the New York Times, which published the first excerpts from the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. President Richard Nixon decided that the publication damaged not just Johnson’s administration but also his own. He obtained a court order barring the Times from publishing further excerpts. Ellsberg who was in hiding to avoid arrest, then leaked the papers to the Washington Post. Soon it too was barred from publication. The case quickly went to the Supreme Court, which on June 30, ruled 6 to 3 that the Times and the Post had the right to publish the papers. The ruling was a landmark decision on the freedom of the press and set a high bar for the government’s ability to engage in prior restraint.
2,500th Anniversary of the Battle of Plataea, August 479 BCE. What if? It’s a tantalizing question. And it can be rightly asked of what happened when an alliance of Greek city-states met the forces of the Persian King Xerxes I in Greece in 479 BCE. A year earlier the Persians had overcome a heroic stand by the Spartans at Thermopylae and conquered much of mainland Greece before being defeated by the Greek navy at the Battle of Salamis. After the loss, Xerxes returned to Asia Minor with part of his army. However, one of his generals, Mardonius, remained behind. After sacking Athens, he set up camp at Plataea with an estimated 100,000 soldiers. In late summer, nearly 40,000 Greeks marched out to battle. For more than a week, the two sides warily eyed each other. After a few days of skirmishing, Mardonius thought he saw the Greek line breaking. When he pursued them, the Greeks turned and stood their ground. Mardonius was killed in the fighting that followed. The Persian army was soon routed, and Persia would never again invade Greece. Herodotus described the Battle of Plataea as “the finest victory in all history known to me.” Had Mardonius prevailed, he might have defeated the Greek city-states, destroying “Western Civilization” in the cradle.
Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Fulbright Program, August 1, 1946. Sometimes small policy innovations produce big results. The Fulbright Program is a case in point. Few people noticed in 1945 when Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR) introduced a bill to use the sale of surplus government war property to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the field of education, culture, and science.” Fulbright’s brainchild eventually morphed into the United States’ largest exchange program and a quintessential example of American soft power. President Harry Truman signed the Fulbright Program into law on August 1, 1946, and the first exchanges of scholars came the following year with China and Burma. Today, the Fulbright Program awards about 8,000 grants annually in more than 160 countries. Nearly 400,000 people have received Fulbrights, including the soprano Renée Fleming, the historian John Hope Franklin, and a young economist named Juan Manuel Santos. He went on to become the president of Colombia and the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Although some U.S. administrations have tried to cut the Fulbright Program’s budget, so far none have succeeded. The commitment to cultural exchange as an expression of American values and as a tool for promoting American interests retains strong bipartisan support.
Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations Vote to Expel Taiwan, October 25, 1971. The Republic of China (ROC) was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and one of its four veto-wielding members. When Mao Zedong’s communist forces triumphed in the Chinese civil war four years later, the ROC was reduced to possession of just Taiwan and a few smaller islands. Even though Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) controlled all of mainland China, the UN continued to regard the ROC as China’s official representative. But that position proved unsustainable. By 1971, Beijing had gained enough support to force a vote in the UN General Assembly on a resolution admitting the PRC and ousting the ROC. The United States opposed the PRC’s admission. However, lacking the votes needed to prevail, it proposed to admit China separately, thereby allowing Taiwan to retain a seat. The motion failed. The General Assembly then passed Resolution 2758, which admitted the PRC and ejected the ROC, by a vote of 76 to 35 with 17 abstentions. Taiwan has been barred ever since from participating in the UN and other international organizations like the World Health Organization. Efforts to restore Taiwanese membership have gotten nowhere as the PRC insists that it alone represents the Chinese people.
Centennial Anniversary of the Dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, November 11, 1921. Standing atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery with an unobstructed view of Washington, DC, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is perhaps America’s most solemn landmark. In March 1921, Congress approved its construction to commemorate the U.S. lives lost during World War I. The remains of four unidentified U.S. soldiers were exhumed from four burial sites in France; one was chosen to be returned home to be buried at the memorial. The Unknown Soldier arrived in Washington on November 9, 1921, and was buried two days later at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony presided over by President Warren G. Harding. The sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones designed the tombstone, completed in 1932, which reads “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.” Sadly, the Unknown Soldier was joined in his repose decades later by unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (The Unknown of Vietnam was identified in 1988 using DNA analysis.) Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “The Old Guard,” stand watch over the Tomb twenty-four hours a day.
Other Anniversaries in 2021. January 3 is the 500th anniversary of the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to excommunicate Martin Luther for his refusal to recant his Ninety-five Theses, the decision that triggered the Protestant Reformation. February 1 marks seventy-five years since Trygve Lie was selected as the first secretary-general of the United Nations. March 4 represents the seventy-fifth anniversary of Soviet tanks invading the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan, touching off the Azerbaijani crisis and helping to pave the road to the Cold War. April 18 marks ten years since Fidel Castro resigned as the leader of Cuba’s Communist Party. May 2 is the tenth anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. June 1 is the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. July 5 marks fifty years since the voting age in the United States was lowered to eighteen with the certification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. August 13 marks five hundred years since Spanish conquistadors captured Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc, ending the Aztec Empire. September 24 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at the UN. October 1 marks seventy-five years since twelve high-ranking Nazi officials were sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials. November 15 marks fifty years since Intel released the world's first commercially-available microprocessor, the Intel 4004. December 3 is the fiftieth anniversary of Pakistan’s decision to launch air strikes against India, which started the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and, contrary to Islamabad’s hopes, guaranteed the success of Bangladesh’s independence bid that had begun nine months earlier.
On the lighter side. January 12 is the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of All in the Family, which became one of the most influential sitcoms in U.S. television history. February 6 marks ten years since Aaron Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLV. March 11 is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Allman Brothers’ three-day run at New York’s Fillmore East, which produced one of the greatest live albums of all time. April 30 marks fifty years since a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a veteran Oscar Robertson led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Championship. May 9 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the premiere of Hour Glass, the first network television entertainment show. June 15 marks ten years since the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup for the first time in thirty-nine years. July 22 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of the Daily Show; Craig Kilborn, not Jon Stewart, was the host. August 14 marks fifty years since the release of the album Who’s Next, which included among other great tracks the incomparable “Baba O’Reilly.” September 13 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere of Everybody Loves Raymond. October 15 marks seventy-five years since the Boston Red Sox lost Game 7 of the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals on an eighth-inning play that led to unfair claims that “Pesky held the ball.” November 8 marks fifty years since the album Led Zeppelin IV debuted and “Stairway to Heaven” was unleashed on the world. December 20 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the world premiere of the Christmas staple, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Clare McGraw and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.
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