from The Water's Edge

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2016

Pearl Harbor survivor at the "Remembrance Wall" at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Hugh Gentry/Courtesy Reuters)

December 1, 2015

Pearl Harbor survivor at the "Remembrance Wall" at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Hugh Gentry/Courtesy Reuters)
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Anniversaries are how we mark the passage time of time, celebrate our triumphs, and honor our losses. Two thousand and fifteen witnessed several significant historical anniversaries: the octocentennial of the Magna Carta, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison to name a few. Two thousand and sixteen will also see anniversaries of many significant events in world history. Here are ten of note:

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Gulf War, January 16, 1991. After Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President George H. W. Bush vowed that the invasion “would not stand.” He ordered several hundred thousand U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, where they were joined by forces from other countries, as part of Operation Desert Shield to deter further Iraqi aggression. On November 29, 1990, the United Nations Security Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of Resolution 678, which authorized “all necessary means” to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait if Iraq did not do so voluntarily by January 15, 1991. On January 13, 1991, Congress voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Three days later, the U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm, which began with massive air strikes against Iraqi forces and installations. After thirty-eight days, the air campaign gave way to a ground offensive, Operation Desert Sabre. Also known as the “one-hundred hour war,” it quickly led to the rout of Iraqi forces. Despite calls from some quarters for coalition troops to march to Baghdad to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Bush declared a ceasefire on February 27, 1991, announcing that “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated.” Roughly 300 coalition troops and between 8,000 and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fighting.

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Centennial of the Battle of Verdun, February 21-December 18, 1916. The Battle of Verdun remains one of the deadliest confrontations in the annals of warfare, producing crippling losses on both sides of the battlefield. The battle was the brainchild of General Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the Imperial German General Staff. He believed that Germany could win the war if it could smash France’s army in one massive confrontation. He chose Verdun as the place to “bleed it white” both because its location in northeastern France made it susceptible to mass artillery fire and because as one of France’s major citadels its loss would crush French morale. Early fighting went as Falkenhayn had hoped. German forces took several French forts and came within two miles of the center of Verdun. By July, however, the German advance had bogged down. With the British having launched a separate offensive against German troops at the Somme at the start of July, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Falkenhayn as chief of staff. The French army slowly began to push the Germans back. By the time the fighting halted in December, the two armies had returned to nearly the same lines they had held at the start of the year. In the meantime, they had each suffered more than 330,000 casualties.

Seventieth Anniversary of the Long Telegram, February 22, 1946. Most State Department cables are forgotten before they are read. The 5,300 word cable (or telegram) that George Kennan, the America charge d’affaires in Moscow, sent to his superiors back in Washington in the winter of 1946 helped set U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Kennan wrote the Long Telegram to answer questions about a belligerent speech that wartime ally Joseph Stalin had given two weeks earlier. Kennan argued that U.S. policy could not influence Moscow because the Soviets were “committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi.” Kennan published a revised version of the Long Telegram, with the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” a year later in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X” (Kennan still worked at the State Department, and it was deemed unwise that he write using his own name.) Although the argument changed in some ways, the central point remained the same: “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 doctrine of containment would guide U.S. foreign policy for the next four decades.

Centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, May 16, 1916. The outcome of World War I was still very much in doubt in early 1916. Nonetheless, British and French diplomats were busy negotiating how they planned to divide up the Ottoman Empire, a German ally, once they won the war. The empire had long been the “sick man of Europe,” variously supported and undermined by great and small powers alike, its once vast lands steadily shrinking. The deal that British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges Picot struck, and which is officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, divided up the Ottoman’s Arab lands into British and French spheres of interest. Britain would get central and southern Mesopotamia, France would get much of modern-day Lebanon and parts of Syria, and Palestine would be placed under international administration.  The agreement neither created new countries nor established international borders, and many parts of it were never implemented. It nevertheless helped shape the modern state system that eventually emerged in the Middle East after World War I and which now looks to be showing its age.

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, May 16, 1966. Mao Zedong launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” to revive China’s revolutionary spirit, rid China of reactionary elements, and reassert his control over the country. The result was madness and catastrophe. Mao’s tool for purifying Chinese society was China’s youth. He closed the country’s schools and urged students to challenge their elders for embracing bourgeois values. The so-called Red Guards who formed as a result terrorized the country. An estimated 1.5 million people were killed during the ordeal, which lasted a decade. Many more were imprisoned and tortured. One of the most prominent and consequential victims of the Cultural Revolution was Deng Xiaoping. A veteran of the fabled “Long March” who had played a significant role in building the Chinese Revolutionary Army, he was held under house arrest for two years, paraded through the streets of Beijing wearing a dunce cap, and eventually sent into internal exile. When Deng came to power in 1978, he set China off in a very different direction than the one charted by the Cultural Revolution.

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941. The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939 paved the way for the start of World War II in Europe. Less than two years later, however, Adolf Hitler had rethought the value of his non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. Despite by the risk of facing a two-front war, the German Wehrmacht invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. Code-named Operation Barbarossa, after one Germany’s greatest medieval emperors, the plan was premised on the idea that German troops could defeat the Soviet Red Army in a few months. At first that looked like a good bet. The German blitzkrieg penetrated deep into the Soviet Union, besieging Leningrad and reaching the suburbs of Moscow. But in an echo of what had happened to Napoleon a hundred and twenty-nine years earlier, the Russian winter and the Soviet Union’s immense resources and reserves ground the German advance to a halt. In an epic series of clashes, most notably at the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army eventually turned the Wehrmacht back. Rather than giving Germany complete dominance over Europe, Operation Barbarossa left the Germans with a two-front war they would not win.

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Centennial of the Battle of the Somme, July 21-November 18, 1916. Like the Battle of Verdun, the Battle of the Somme is one of the bloodiest battles in history. The battlefield was located about 150 miles northwest of Verdun, and British rather than French soldiers accounted for the bulk of Allied forces. The battle, which had been conceived by France’s commanding general Joseph Joffre and which the British and French had been planning since late 1915, was initially intended to wear down German troops. The operation took on a greater urgency with Germany’s initial successes at Verdun. The first day of fighting at the Somme showed what would come. The British army suffered 58,000 casualties and nearly 20,000 deaths, or more than the British suffered in the Crimea, Boer, and Korean wars combined. The shocking toll came about in good part because British artillery was far less effective than British generals assumed. It was the deadliest day in British military history, and helped fuel later claims that British soldiers had been “lions led by donkeys.” After months of bloody conflict, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig halted the offensive on November 18, 1916. Britain suffered an estimated 420,000 casualties at the Somme, the French 200,000, and the Germans 500,000. Neither side gained much ground for all the blood it shed.

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Babi Yar Massacre, September 29-30, 1941. German troops took control of Kiev, then a part of the Soviet Union, on September 19, 1941, as part of Operation Barbarossa. Within days, the German troops began to implement Adolf Hitler’s order to exterminate all Jews in the area. It is estimated that a 100,000 of the 160,000 Jews living in Kiev had fled the city as the Wehrmacht approached. Those who remained behind suffered a grim fate. The Einsatzgruppen or “mobile killing unit,” ordered Kiev’s Jews to assemble next to a Jewish cemetery early on the morning of September 29 with all their belongings. Those who showed up were marched to Babi Yar, a ravine two miles away on the outskirts of the city. After placing their belongings in neat piles, they were shot. Some 34,000 people died over two days. During the next two years, the Germans would execute another 70,000 people at Babi Yar. When the Wehrmacht was finally forced to retreat from the area in 1943, it tried to cover up evidence of the massacres by digging up the bodies and burning them. Moscow’s reluctance to acknowledge the Jewish martyrdom at Babi Yar helped suppress news of the massacre for several decades.

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. For more than two years after World War II started in Europe, Americans debated what U.S. policy should be toward the Axis Powers. With steps like the destroyers-for-bases deal and the Lend-Lease Act, the United States over time crept closer to open support for the Allies, but anti-interventionist leaders bitterly denounced what they saw as a march toward war. The public debate was finally settled on Sunday December 7, 1941 when Japanese planes attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii without warning. In two hours of bombings, 2,403 American were killed, and the United States lost eighteen ships, including eight battleships, and about 300 planes. The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, called the attack “a date which will live in infamy,” and demanded a declaration of war. A near unanimous Congress gave it to him. On December 11, Germany, Japan’s ally, declared war on the United States. By the end of the day, the U.S. Congress had, at FDR’s request, returned the favor. The United States was finally in World War II.

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, December 26, 1991. In June 1982, President Ronald Reagan told the British Parliament that the Soviet Union would end up on “the ash heap of history.” His prediction came true in less than a decade and without a shot being fired. In 1986, new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a sweeping set of reforms designed to address the Soviet Union’s growing economic problems. Rather than rejuvenating the economy, however, perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”) helped accelerate the Soviet Union’s demise. When Gorbachev eased the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe, Soviet dominance of the region began, as he put it, to “crumble like a dry saltine cracker.” After Moscow stood idly by when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Warsaw Pact was doomed. Mostly peaceful revolutions spread across Eastern Europe. The willingness to shed Moscow’s yoke soon spread to the Soviet Union’s Baltic republics, which declared their independence. Soviet efforts to quash their independence bids failed. On December 25, Gorbachev recognized the inevitable and resigned as leader of the Soviet Union. By the next morning, the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics and ceased to exist.

Bonus anniversary of note in 2016: Quadricentennial of Shakespeare’s Death, April 23, 1616. If you have ever used the words “bedroom,” “lonely,” or “zany,” or phrases like “all’s well that ends well,” “catch a cold,” or “it was Greek to me,” you owe a debt to William Shakespeare. The greatest writer the English language has ever known coined more than 1,700 common words and dozens of everyday phrases. Yet there are so many unknowns about his life that hundreds of books and articles have been written arguing that someone other than the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote classics such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. We do know that Shakespeare was born in 1564, married Anne Hathaway (not that Anne Hathaway), and had three children, Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet. We also know that he wrote at least 37 plays and some of the most breathtakingly beautiful sonnets ever put on paper. We don’t how or why he died. But we do know that four centuries after Shakespeare’s death we continue to feel his influence.

Other significant historical anniversaries in 2016. January 6 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech. March 9 is the centennial of Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico. March 31 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. April 24 is the centennial of the start of the Easter Rising in Dublin. July 9 is the bicentennial of Argentina’s declaration of independence from Spain. September 2 marks the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Great Fire of London. September 30 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Botswana’s independence. November 3 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Florence flood. November 21 is the centennial of the sinking of the Britannic, the sister ship to the Titanic, which likely hit a German mine.

On the lighter side. January 17 is the centennial of the founding of the Professional Golfers Association. March 7 is the centennial of BMW’s founding. May 1 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rickey Henderson’s record breaking 939th stolen base; he would go on to steal another 497 bases. June 1 is the fiftieth anniversary of the airing of the final episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. June 19 marks two hundred years since Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John William Polidori gathered at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland to tell the ghost stories that would become Frankenstein and The Vampyre. August 13 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Super Nintendo’s release in the United States. September 8 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek. September 13 is the centennial of the birth of Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach among other great children’s books. September 20 is the seventieth anniversary of the first Cannes Film Festival. October 9 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Baltimore Orioles’ four-game sweep of Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, giving the O’s their first World Series championship. December 18 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. December 25 if the seventy-fifth anniversary of Bing Crosby’s first performance of “White Christmas.”

Other posts in this series:

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2018

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2017

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2015

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2014

 

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