Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2015
Anniversaries are how we mark the passage time of time, celebrate our triumphs, and honor our losses. Two thousand and fourteen witnessed several significant historical anniversaries: the centennial of the start of World War I, the bicentennial of the British sack of Washington, DC, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to name a few. Two thousand and fifteen will also see anniversaries of many significant events in world history. Here are ten of note:
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s Release from Prison, February 11, 1990. Nelson Mandela’s journey to becoming the first black president of South Africa was a long one. Trained as a lawyer, he became a prominent anti-apartheid activist in the 1950s as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a founder of the ANC Youth League. When Pretoria banned the ANC in 1960, Mandela turned to armed resistance. In 1962, he was arrested and convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. He was sent to Robben Island prison, where he was forced to work at hard labor in a limestone quarry and allowed to receive one visitor and one letter every six months. Despite his imprisonment, Mandela’s fame as a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle grew. After twenty-seven years behind bars, eighteen of which he spent at Robben Island, Mandela was finally released on February 11, 1990 by the new government of Frederik Willem de Klerk. Mandela then worked with De Klerk to dismantle the apartheid system. The two men were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. In 1994, South Africans elected Mandela president. He died in 2013, leaving behind a legacy that few others can match.
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Arrival of the First U.S. Combat Troops in South Vietnam, March 8, 1965. In 1960, the United States had roughly 750 military advisors in South Vietnam; by 1964, the number had grown to 16,000. The increased effort did little, however, to stem to the Viet Cong insurgency. In August 1964, Congress authorized the use of force against North Vietnam in the wake of a purported attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. After deadly Viet Cong attacks on U.S. military facilities in South Vietnam in early February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the dispatch of the first U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam. On March 8, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived in South Vietnam to protect the U.S. airbase at Da Nang, which was instrumental in Operation Rolling Thunder, the large-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnam that the U.S. had launched just days earlier and which would last until November 1968. The decision to send the marines to Da Nang broke the taboo on combat troops. By the end of 1965, the United States had 184,300 troops in South Vietnam. The rapid U.S. military escalation came with a bitter historical irony. Five months before the marines hit the beaches of Da Nang, President Johnson had insisted: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Fortieth Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975. America’s involvement in Vietnam began with great optimism about what U.S. military power could achieve. It ended with the country deeply divided and doubting its place in the world. President Richard Nixon had attempted to bring “peace with honor” through a January 1973 peace deal with North Vietnam that (among other things) traded the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces for the release of American prisoners of war. The agreement did not, however, end the fighting between the North and South. In early 1975, North Vietnam launched a major military offensive. South Vietnamese forces quickly retreated. Many South Vietnamese civilians fled their homes as well, trying to find safety in what became known as the “convoy of tears.” By the end of April, the North Vietnamese had closed in on Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital. On April 29, the United States launched Operation Frequent Wind, a helicopter evacuation of the Americans remaining in the city. By the next day, all American military and diplomatic personnel had left Vietnam, taking many “at risk” South Vietnamese with them—and leaving many more behind. More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. You can find all of their names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
Centennial of the Sinking of the Lusitania, May 7, 1915. The 1,959 passengers on board the RMS Lusitania were looking forward to the end of their week-long voyage from New York City as the luxurious British ocean liner rounded southern Ireland on its way to Liverpool early on the afternoon on May 7, 1915. But the ship never reached port. A dozen miles off Old Head of Kinsale, a German U-boat lay waiting. The submarine fired one of its two remaining torpedoes. It scored a direct hit. The Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes; nearly 1,200 passengers, including 128 Americans, died. (Why the Lusitania sank so quickly is disputed.) The sinking created an international uproar. President Woodrow Wilson saw the attack as a barbarous violation of the freedom of the seas. But he was unwilling to abandon his policy of neutrality toward the war in Europe, and he knew that Congress would not vote for war in any event. So he contented himself by filing three protest notes with the German government. (Even that step was too much for Wilson’s pacifist secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan; he resigned in protest after the first note.) Berlin insisted that the Lusitania’s sinking was justified because Germany had published notices in the American press warning passengers that they traveled on allied ships “at their own risk” and because the Lusitania was carrying weapons. (The Lusitania’s precise cargo has been a matter of controversy; by one account it was carrying more than 170 tons of ammunition.) Berlin eventually agreed to suspend its attacks without warning on passenger ships. Although the sinking of the Lusitania did not prompt the United States to enter World War I—that would not happen for another two years and only after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare—the incident convinced many Americans that Germany was the villain in the Great War.
Octocentennial of the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215. Americans are proud of their constitution. And rightly so. But the U.S. Constitution owes a large debt to a document written more than five centuries earlier, England’s Magna Carta. The story of “the Great Charter” begins in feudal England with a tax hike. King John needed money to raise an army that could win back territory he had lost in France. His tax plan angered a group of forty barons already unhappy with his seizure of their lands and infringement on their feudal and judicial rights. They presented the king with their demands. He turned them down flat. The barons rebelled. They renounced their allegiance to the crown and seized the Tower of London. Faced with a budding insurrection that might topple his rule, King John opted to negotiate. The result was the Magna Carta, which he signed at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. In exchange for John’s concessions, the barons pledged their allegiance to him once more. Most of the specific provisions of the Magna Carta address feudal concerns of no interest today. But the Magna Carta’s contribution to the development of the concept of the rule of law remains unquestioned—it was the first document to limit the power of a monarch and make him subject to the law. The legacy of the Magna Carta lives today in the writ of habeas corpus, in the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (The story of the Magna Carta didn’t end at Runnymede. In August 1215, Pope Innocent III issued a papal bull declaring the Magna Carta null and void. King John died the next year of dysentery while fighting against France. His son, King Henry III, issued a substantially revised version of the Magna Carta in 1225.)
Bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the greatest military and political genius of all time. Yet his defeat in battle on June 18, 1815 gave the world the metaphor for ultimate failure: Waterloo. That Napoleon even met the combined forces of Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Prussia on the plains just south of Brussels was remarkable. A little more than a year earlier he had been deposed as emperor of France and sent into exile at Elba. But in February 1815, he slipped by his guards, evaded a British naval patrol, and landed in France. Within a month he returned to Paris in triumph, forcing the new French king to flee the country and ushering in the Hundred Days. When the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw and raised the so-called Seventh Coalition to drive him from power, Napoleon concluded that his only chance to defeat the much larger forces arrayed against him was to go on the attack. He met his adversaries at Waterloo. The result was a crushing defeat at the hands of armies led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s General Gebhard von Blücher. After his surrender, Napoleon was exiled once again, this time to St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic more than 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He died there in 1821. He was fifty-one.
Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, July 10, 1940. Britain’s prospects looked dim as the summer of 1940 began. The Phoney War had given way to the German blitzkrieg in May. France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway all fell with alarming speed. The British army had barely escaped annihilation after its “miracle” evacuation from Dunkirk. On June 18, the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his countrymen, “The Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Churchill was right; three weeks later the German Luftwaffe began bombing England. Adolf Hitler hoped that the Battle of Britain would give Germany air superiority, thereby allowing German troops to invade. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) fought back with valor. Both sides suffered great losses: the RAF lost 1,012 aircraft and 537 airmen, and the Luftwaffe lost 1,918 aircraft and 2,662 airmen. By August 1940, it was clear that the Germans could not achieve air superiority. That did not mean, however, that London and other British cities were safe from aerial assault. The bombing campaign known as “the Blitz” began that month and continued through May 1941, killing thousands of British citizens. The war dragged on for four more years and many more casualties. But Britain had survived its moment of ultimate peril.
Twentieth Anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, July 11, 1995. The Soviet Union collapsed peacefully when the Cold War ended; Yugoslavia did not. In 1993, the fighting within the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia Herzegovina led the United Nations to declare a “safe zone” for Bosnian Muslims around the town of Srebrenica. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked for 37,000 peacekeepers to patrol the safe haven, but member states provided only 7,600 troops. Those forces soon dwindled, and by July 1995 only a few hundred Dutch peacekeepers remained. They stepped aside as the Bosnian Serb forces attacked Srebrenica on July 6. The Bosnian Serb Army, led by General Ratko Mladić, sought to punish Bosnian Muslims for attacks on Serb communities and to exact revenge (so they said) for the Ottoman empire’s ruthless suppression of a Serb uprising in 1804. Bosnian Serbs entered Srebrenica on July 11 and killed almost eight thousand Bosnian Muslims (mostly men and boys) in a span of ten days. NATO responded with air strikes in August, but they were too late. Twenty years later, bodies of victims are still being found, and the effort to get justice for the victims and the survivors continues. Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić and General Mladić are on trial at The Hague for war crimes. Families of the victims have won cases in Dutch courts on the grounds that Dutch peacekeepers failed in their obligation to protect Bosnian Muslims. Despite these efforts, ethnic tensions in Bosnia still run high.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, August 2, 1990. On a map, Kuwait looks like a small and inconsequential patch of land. But to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990, it held great appeal. The Kuwaitis had two things he wanted: oil and access to the Persian Gulf. Iraq was struggling economically in 1990 as it dealt with the consequences of its eight-year-long war with Iran. Hussein had accused Kuwait of stealing from the massive oil field that straddled the Iraq-Kuwait border, driving oil prices down by pumping too much oil, and reneging on promises to forgive the massive debts Iraq had run up fighting Iran. Most experts dismissed Hussein’s threats as posturing. They were wrong. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor. Kuwait quickly surrendered to the Iraqi army, which at the time was the fourth-largest in the world. The UN Security Council ordered Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, and backed up its demands by imposing sanctions. Hussein rebuffed the demands, believing that the sanctions would fail and that no one could evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait by force. He was as wrong as the experts who doubted his threats to invade Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, the United States and its coalition partners, acting pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution passed six weeks earlier, launched Operation Desert Storm. Iraq’s defeat was rapid and decisive. By the end of February, Iraqi troops had fled Kuwait and President George H.W. Bush had declared a ceasefire. Although Bush administration figured that Hussein would soon be pushed from power, he held on for another dozen years, paving the way for a second U.S. war against Iraq in 2003.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of German Reunification, October 3, 1990. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall fell. But an equally important moment for Germany came eleven months later when the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were reunited for the first time since 1945. It was not obvious that Germany’s neighbors would allow the country to reunite. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher bitterly opposed German reunification. So too did French President Francois Mitterrand. Nonetheless, U.S. President George H.W. Bush helped champion negotiations among East and West Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The result was the “Two-Plus-Four Treaty,” which was signed on September 12, 1990. It allowed for Germany’s reunification on October 3. Elections were held two months later. Germans now call October 3 the Day of German Unity. It will no doubt be a cause for extra celebration in 2015.
Other significant historical anniversaries in 2015. January 2 marks the centennial of the first use of lethal chemical weapons in World War I. January 8 is the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, which came after the war that prompted it ended. January 27 is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. February 21 is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. March 20 is the twentieth anniversary of the Tokyo sarin gas attack. April 9 is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. April 15 is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. April 19 is the twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. May 8 is the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. May 14 is the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Warsaw Pact. August 6 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. August 6 is the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and August 9 is the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. August 14 marks the seventieth anniversary of V-J Day, Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. August 29 is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. September 2 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the destroyers-for-bases deal between the United States and Great Britain. October 3 is the twentieth anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal for murder. November 5 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of FDR’s election to a third presidential term, the first and only time that has happened in American history. December 1 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus.
On the lighter side. January 6 is the fortieth anniversary of the first episode of Wheel of Fortune. January 31 marks the seventieth anniversary of the mailing of the first Social Security check. March 2 is the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. premiere of The Sound of Music. April 23 marks thirty years since the introduction of New Coke, which didn’t go so well. May 6 is the centennial of Babe Ruth’s first home run, which he hit in the Polo Grounds off of Yankee right-hander Jack Warhop. July 3 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the premiere of Back to the Future. July 17 is the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of Disneyland. August 15 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles playing Shea Stadium. September 13 marks thirty years since the release of the first Super Mario Bros game for Nintendo. September 17 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom with an unlikely setting, a German prisoner-of-war camp. September 18 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of I Dream of Jeannie, a sitcom that combined astronauts and a beautiful genie. October 11 is the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of Saturday Night Live. October 14 marks fifty years since the conclusion of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ four-games-to-three-victory over the Minnesota Twins in the World Series, the last World Series in which the winning pitcher in every game threw a complete game. October 20 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the release of the third and final volume in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. December 9 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of A Charlie Brown Christmas. December 18 marks the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s marriage to Edith Bolling Galt, the last time an American president got married while in office. December 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Dr. Zhivago, which is the eighth highest grossing film of all time on an inflation-adjusted basis.
If there are any anniversaries I’ve missed, please post in the comments below.
Corey Cooper and Rachael Kauss helped prepare this post.
Other posts in this series:
Ten Historical Anniversaries to Note in 2022
Ten Historical Anniversaries to Note in 2021
Ten Historical Anniversaries to Note in 2020
Ten Historical Anniversaries to Note in 2019
Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2018
Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2017
Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2016