Anniversaries are how we mark the passage time of time, celebrate our triumphs, and honor our losses. Two thousand and thirteen had its share of historical anniversaries of note: the five hundredth anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida, the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the end of the French and Indian (or Seven Years’) War, the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, to name a few. Two thousand and fourteen will also see anniversaries of many significant events in world history. Here are ten of note:
Twentieth Anniversary of the Start of the Rwandan Genocide, April 6, 1994. Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana boarded the plane bound for Kigali with a sense of accomplishment. He had just wrapped up discussions in Tanzania about implementing the Arusha Accords, a deal to end a three-year civil war that had largely pitted Hutu, Rwanda’s largest ethnic group, against Tutsi. But Habyarimana never made it home. His plane was shot down on its approach to the Kigali airport—the wreckage landed on the grounds of the presidential palace. Who shot the plane down remains unclear. Within hours of Habyarimana’s death, his presidential guard began killing leaders of the political opposition and then Tutsis and moderate Hutus. As many as a million people died in the genocide that followed. Other countries immediately condemned the violence, but did nothing significant to stop it. The killing only ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, seized Kigali in July and many Rwandan Hutus fled the country. Rwanda has made impressive progress rebuilding over the past two decades. However, trials for the perpetrators of the genocide are still going on, and its legacy continues to plague the region.
Bicentennial of Napoleon’s Exile to Elba, April 20, 1814. Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the single most consequential political figure of the nineteenth century. But his desire to dominate all of Europe was his undoing. His disastrous invasion of and retreat from Moscow in late 1812 was the turning point. With his Grande Armée a shadow of its former self, Paris surrendered to the Allied powers at the end of March 1814. Napoleon agreed a week later to abdicate unconditionally as emperor. The terms of his surrender were codified with the signing of the Treaty of Fountainebleau, which banished him to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tuscany. On April 20, Napoleon began his journey into exile. Europe, however, would hear from him again.
Twentieth Anniversary of the End of Apartheid in South Africa, April 27, 1994. After the Afrikaaner-dominated National Party came to power in South Africa’s 1948 elections, it transformed informal and local practices of racial segregation into a rigid system of national racial separation and subjugation known as “apartheid.” (“Apartheid” comes from the Afrikaans word for “separateness.”) Throughout the Cold War, the United States and many of its allies excused South Africa’s racial repression. They valued Pretoria as an anti-communist ally and derided the African National Congress (ANC), the main resistance organization, as a tool of Soviet influence. Western publics began to openly question that assessment after the South African government brutally suppressed an uprising in Soweto, a black township outside of Johannesburg, in 1976. By the time the Cold War ended, foreign support for the white-dominated government had collapsed, while demands for change at home had grown. In 1990, the South African government ended its ban on the ANC and freed its leader Nelson Mandela after twenty-seven years in prison. Political change that was once unimaginable suddenly became inevitable. On April 27, 1994, South Africans chose Mandela to be president in elections that officially marked the end of apartheid.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4, 1989. The students who initially gathered in Tiananmen Square on April 15, 1989 sought to mourn the death earlier that day of Hu Yaobang, the former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary whose push for reforms and tolerance of student protests had led party hardliners to depose him two years earlier. That initial gathering quickly attracted the support of a wide range of Chinese and grew into massive protests demanding political and economic reform. Chinese leaders did not take kindly to the demonstrations, which among other things featured a thirty-three-foot-tall statue of the “Goddess of Democracy” modeled on the Statue of Liberty. On May 20, the government declared martial law. On the night of June 3, the Chinese military entered the square and began to fire on the demonstrators. The Chinese government has never officially acknowledged the death toll of what many Chinese refer to euphemistically as the June 4 Incident; the estimates range from a few hundred to several thousand. China won’t be marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Public discussion of what happened remains banned, and images of the protest, in particular the photograph of a solitary man blocking the path of tanks attempting to enter the square, won’t appear in Chinese newspapers. Look for Xi Jinping’s government to crack down on Chinese who dare to violate the ban on honoring those who lost their lives at Tiananmen.
Seven Hundredth Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, June 23-24, 1314. The Battle of Bannockburn is an iconic moment in Scottish history. In June 1314, King Edward II of England invaded Scotland in a bid to end a war that had started nearly two decades earlier (and that provides the inspiration for Mel Gibson’ epic, but-not-quite-accurate film, Braveheart.) His adversary was Scottish King Robert the Bruce, whose forces were outnumbered three to one. The two armies clashed at Bannockburn, some 35 miles northwest of Edinburgh. Despite seemingly long odds, the Scots routed the English. The victory didn’t end the Scottish Wars of Independence. That came fourteen years later. But for Scots, that’s a trifle. What matters is that at Bannockburn they vanquished to their larger and stronger southern neighbor. If only the Scottish national football team enjoyed similar success today.
Centennial of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Start of the Great War, Which (Regrettably) Is Better Known Today as World War One, June-September 1914. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, almost didn’t happen. A young Serbian nationalist threw a bomb at his open-air touring car as it drove through Sarajevo on the morning of June 28, 1914; the device bounced off the car before exploding. Uninjured, the archduke insisted on giving his planned speech at Sarajevo’s City Hall, driving by several of the bomber’s accomplices along the way. But each would-be assassin lost his nerve to fire at the archduke. When the speech concluded, the royal motorcade retraced its steps through Sarajevo only to mistakenly—and fatefully—turn onto a side street. The car, which had no reverse gear, was slowly pushed back onto the main street. A surprised Gavrilo Princip, who by coincidence happened to be standing where the archduke’s driver took a wrong turn, did what his fellow plotters couldn’t—he fired his handgun, killing the archduke and his wife. No one knew it at the time, but Europe was headed toward war. On July 23, Austria issued an ultimatum demanding Serbia allow it to investigate Belgrade’s role in the assassination. On July 28, Vienna deemed Belgrade’s response inadequate and declared war. By August 4, all the major European powers had followed suit. (The Wilson administration formally proclaimed U.S. neutrality toward the war in Europe on the same day.) At first it looked as if the Schlieffen Plan would bring Germany a swift victory—German troops were thirty miles from Paris by the start of September. But the prospect of a quick victory disappeared on September 6 at the Battle of the Marne. The Allied and Central Powers would (literally) dig in for one of the most devastating wars in history. More than eight million people died and the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires all collapsed. The inevitable onslaught of op-eds and magazine articles drawing ominous parallels between then and now has already begun.
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the Passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 2-7, 1964. On August 2, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an American destroyer, the USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese believed, incorrectly, that the Maddox had supported South Vietnamese commando raids on nearby islands the night before. Two days later, the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, reported they were again under attack. This second attack appears to have been imaginary, the result of sailors misreading sonar and radar equipment that was malfunctioning because of heavy seas. Despite the fact that the captain of the Maddox quickly expressed doubt that an attack had occurred, President Lyndon Johnson authorized retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnamese targets, thereby breaking a taboo against using the U.S. military to openly attack North Vietnam. Johnson asked Congress on August 5 to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which approved “the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Congress passed the resolution after two days of debate and with only two dissenting votes. Many of the lawmakers would later come to regret their vote, which legitimated LBJ’s decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Bicentennial of the British Burning of Washington, the Shelling of Fort McHenry, and the Writing of the Star Spangled Banner, August-September 1814. You could say that 1814 was a year of lows and highs for the United States. On August 24, British troops sacked Washington, DC, burning the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Treasury Building as they went. First Lady Dolley Madison kept her wits about her, however, and saved many of the White House’s valuables, including Gilbert Sullivan’s famous portrait of George Washington, from the torch. Three weeks later, things looked up for the United States. U.S. forces at Fort McHenry in Baltimore withstood a twenty-five hour bombardment by the British Navy. The sight of the U.S. flag still flying over the fort as the sun rose on the morning of September 14 led an American lawyer detained on a British ship in the harbor to write a poem he called “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” He subsequently set his words to a drinking song known as “Anacreon in Heaven.” Francis Scott Key’s composition is better known today as The Star Spangled Banner.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall was the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain that descended on Europe after World War II. Erected in 1961, it kept East Germans from “voting with their feet” and leaving the oppression of the Soviet bloc for the freedom of West Berlin. Over the next twenty-eight years, an estimated ten thousand people attempted to cross it, and more than two hundred died trying. In the fall of 1989, the communist governments in Eastern Europe began to crumble. Faced with mounting civil unrest, the East German government announced on November 9, 1989 that its citizens could visit West Berlin and West Germany. When the gates in the wall opened, thousands of people poured through to West Berlin, and Berliners celebrated as they were reunited with their families and neighbors. The fall of the wall marked the start of German reunification, which was completed on October 3, 1990. The other communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union all joined East Germany on the “ash heap of history.” Seldom has history witnessed such swift and peaceful political change.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama, December 20, 1989. General Manuel Noriega went from U.S. ally to U.S. foe in his six years as Panama’s strongman. Initially a CIA asset in the effort unseat Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, he became persona non grata to Washington in the late 1980s as evidence mounted of his involvement in drug trafficking and of his double dealings with Cuban intelligence and the Sandinistas. Tensions with the United States rose after Noriega annulled Panama’s May 1989 presidential election and his supporters attacked the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates. On December 15, the Panamanian National Assembly declared that a state of war existed between Panama and the United States. The next day, Panamanian forces shot and killed a U.S. marine based in the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone. On December 17, President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Just Cause. Three days later, 28,000 U.S. troops invaded and quickly defeated Panamanian forces. Twenty-three American troops died in the fighting, as did somewhere between five hundred and a thousand Panamanians. Noriega was arrested, sent to the United States for trial, and subsequently convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison for drug trafficking. In 2010, the United States extradited him to France to face charges there. In December 2011, France handed the then seventy-seven year-old Noriega over to Panamanian authorities, who jailed him for additional crimes. Panama today has its share of problems, but it also has a thriving economy and a competitive democracy.
Other Significant Foreign Policy Anniversaries in 2014. January 1 is the fifteenth anniversary of the euro’s debut. March 11 is the tenth anniversary of the Madrid train bombings in which 191 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured when jihadists exploded ten bombs on four trains during the morning rush hour. April 9 is the centennial of the Tampico incident, while April 21 is the centennial of the resulting U.S. invasion of Veracruz. May 4 is the twentieth anniversary of the Gaza-Jericho agreement, which gave Palestinians control over parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. May 6 is the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the English Channel tunnel, connecting England with France. May 28 is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization. June 6 is the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, when U.S., British, and other allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. August 4 is the seventieth anniversary of Anne Frank’s arrest by the Gestapo. August 23 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. September 1 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. November 7 is the seventieth anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s unprecedented fourth presidential election.
On the lighter side, January 20 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. January 24 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of Apple’s Macintosh computer. January 29 is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. February 4 is the tenth anniversary of Facebook’s debut. February 7 is the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles arriving in New York City for the first time, and February 9 is the fiftieth anniversary of their debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. August 26 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first televised baseball game (played between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers). October 20 is the tenth anniversary of the conclusion of the greatest comeback in Major League Baseball history, when the Boston Red Sox thrashed the New York Yankees in Game 7 in Yankee Stadium and became the only team in MLB history ever to rally from three games down to win a playoff series. October 27 is the tenth anniversary of when Keith Foulke tossed the ball underhand to Doug Mientkiewicz and broke the Curse of the Bambino. The last two anniversaries mark two of the happiest days in my life.
Other posts in this series: