from The Water's Edge

Ten Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2018

British soldiers marking the anniversary of the armistice that ended WW1. (Reuters/ Peter Nicholls)

December 1, 2017

British soldiers marking the anniversary of the armistice that ended WW1. (Reuters/ Peter Nicholls)
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Political History and Theory

2017

Military History

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United States

Anniversaries mark the passage of time, recall our triumphs, and honor our losses. Two thousand seventeen witnessed many significant historically anniversaries: the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, to name a few. Two thousand eighteen will also see anniversaries of many significant events in world history. Here are ten to note:

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the European Single Market, January 1, 1993. The European Union’s (EU) identity crisis persists. Britain is still headed toward “Brexit,” Euroskepticism continues to rise, and Germany can’t seem to form a government. Last year’s twenty-fifth anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty didn’t help the EU regain its mojo. Perhaps the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the Europe Single Market will. On January 1, 1993, goods and services began moving freely across the EU. No customs checks. No regulatory mismatches. No long lines. The call for a single market traces back to the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957. One of its objectives was to create a common market with free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. These four freedoms formed the basis of the European Single Market, which includes all EU members plus the four non-EU members that make up the European Free Trade Association—Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. As Brexit attests, the Single Market has its doubters. But for all the criticisms, one fact stands out: no other EU member seems eager to follow Britain out the door.

One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, January 3, 1868. The Meiji restoration marks the birth of modern Japan. For the previous two-plus centuries, Japan had been ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a military dictatorship propped-up by the warrior class—the samurais. The shogunate reduced the emperor of Japan to a largely symbolic role and isolated the country from the outside world. The result was two-fold: Japan enjoyed peace and prosperity, and it fell far behind the rest of the world technologically. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, acting on orders from President Millard Fillmore, sailed into Tokyo Bay and demanded that Japan open itself up to American trade. Unable to resist such gunboat diplomacy, the Shogun eventually complied. Western culture and influence soon spread, angering traditionalists. They pushed to restore unified imperial rule, believing only it would enable Japan to resist encroaching Western powers. On January 3, 1868, plotters ousted Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and restored Emperor Meiji to power. Japan moved quickly to centralize its government, modernize its army, and industrialize its economy. Within four decades, Japan would go from being preyed upon by foreign powers to being one of the strongest powers in Asia.

Centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Speech, January 8, 1918. Nine months after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress to outline his “Fourteen Points” for a postwar peace. It was a short speech at just over twelve hundred words. But it changed the world. Eight of his fourteen points addressed specific territorial issues (e.g., Alsace and Lorraine should be returned to France.) The other six addressed the conduct of international relations:  the end to secret treaties,  freedom of the seas, reciprocal and free trade, limits on national armaments, impartial adjudication of competing colonial claims, and most important, the creation of “a general association of nations” to guarantee the “political independence and territorial integrity of great and small states alike.” Wilson discovered at the Paris Peace Conference just how foreign his ideas were to other allied leaders and how hard it was to translate his lofty principles into practice. He succeeded in winning support in Paris for his “general association of nations” only to discover that the. U.S. Senate wasn’t interested in joining the League of Nations. It would take another world war and another American president before Wilsonianism would triumph.

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Tet Offensive, January 30, 1968. In late 1967, President Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations offensive to reverse eroding domestic political support for the Vietnam War. He ordered U.S. officials in Saigon to highlight evidence of American success, created a group within the White House to share favorable information about the war, and brought the commanding U.S. general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, back to Washington to tell Americans that things were going well. Ten weeks after Westmoreland declared that “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched a surprise attack across South Vietnam during the celebration of Tet, the lunar New Year. What Americans saw on television and read in the newspapers didn’t look like a war nearing its end. U.S. military policemen fought Vietcong sappers on the grounds of the U.S. embassy, a South Vietnamese officer executed a Vietcong fighter on the streets of Saigon, and the imperial capital of Hue was overrun. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces ultimately turned the tide, inflicting punishing losses on their adversaries and liberating Hue after weeks of bloody, street-to-street fighting. But in political terms the Tet Offensive changed everything. The end was not in sight in Vietnam, and no one knew when it would be.

Centennial of the Spanish Influenza Outbreak, March 11, 1918. Albert Gitchell, an Army cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, woke up on March 11, 1918, thinking he had a bad cold. He didn’t. Instead, he was “patient zero” in what remains the deadliest pandemic in human history, the Spanish flu. By the time the flu ran its course in 1919, it had killed between 50 and 100 million people. That was about 2-4 percent of the world’s population at the time. No one is sure where the Spanish Flu originated; or even if Private Gitchell was really the first victim. So why is it called the Spanish Flu? That’s a byproduct of World War I censorship. Countries at war suppressed news about the flu to avoiding alarming their publics. Neutral Spain didn’t censor the news, however, creating the mistaken impression that it had been hardest hit. Besides being deadlier than most strains of influenza, the Spanish Flu posed the greatest risk to adults between the ages of twenty and forty. Flus typically are deadliest for the young and the old.

Fiftieth Anniversaries of the Assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5, 1968. Americans were shocked by the news on April 4, 1968 that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Just the night before he had told a gathering at a local church, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Two months after King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary, a victory that likely would have given him the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and perhaps the presidency. The two assassinations shook America to the core. Both men were young—King was thirty-nine and Kennedy forty-two. No one knows how different American politics might have been if they had lived. We can only ask, “what if?”

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19, 1943. After Nazi Germany conquered Poland, it forced Warsaw’s Jews to live in a walled ghetto. The Nazis then began deporting Jews from the ghetto. Most were sent to death camps like Treblinka, though some were sent to forced-labor camps. By mid-1942, more than eighty percent of Warsaw’s Jews had been deported, and those remaining knew that they faced the same grim fate. In response, a group called the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa  (Jewish Fighting Organization or ZOB) formed to resist further deportations. On April 19, 1943, German troops moved to round up the ghetto’s surviving inhabitants, triggering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Armed with pistols and grenades that had been smuggled in by the Polish Home Army, the ZOB attacked the Germans. The badly outnumbered and outgunned Jews fought for weeks. Finally, on May 16, 1943, the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue in Warsaw, effectively ending the uprising. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest of its kind and it inspired similar uprisings at the Minsk ghetto and the Treblinka death camp.   

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Opening for Signature, July 1, 1968. President John F. Kennedy expressed a widely held view when he speculated in 1963 that as many as twenty-five countries would possess nuclear weapons by the 1970s. Kennedy’s pessimistic assessment seemed justified by the failure of efforts such as the Baruch Plan and Atoms for Peace to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Yet, today only nine states possess them. Kennedy’s prediction proved wrong in large part because of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which opened for signature on July 1, 1968. The treaty enshrined three basic principles: countries with nuclear weapons would eventually disarm, countries without nuclear weapons would never acquire them, and all countries would have the right to peaceful nuclear technology. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which was created in 1957, was charged with carrying out inspections to ensure NPT compliance. The treaty entered into force in 1970 with forty-three signatories. Today, it has more than 190. However, three nuclear powers—India, Pakistan, and Israel—have refused to sign it, and North Korea has revoked its signature. Whether the NPT remains relevant over the next fifty years will likely depend on what happens with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 20, 1968. The Prague Spring raised hopes on both sides of the Iron Curtain that economic and political freedom would soon come to the Soviet bloc. The optimism sprouted in January 1968 when Alexander Dubcek succeeded the long-time Czechoslovakian dictator Antonin Novotny as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and began to create “socialism with a human face” by dismantling Stalinist economic and political regulations. Ordinary Czechoslovaks cheered their new freedoms. The Kremlin, however, didn’t. At a July meeting in Czechoslovakia, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev demanded that Dubcek rescind his reforms. Dubcek said he would and then he didn’t. As a result, on August 21, the Soviet Army led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hopelessly outmatched militarily, Czechoslovaks wisely opted for peaceful resistance; fewer than a hundred people were killed in the invasion. Dubcek and his allies were quickly deposed and an orthodox, pro-Soviet government installed. The Kremlin had won. At least for a time. Although Dubcek spent most of the next two decades in internal exile, he lived long enough to see the Iron Curtain fall for good in 1989.

Centennial of the Armistice to End World War I, November 11, 1918. The Great War, or World War I as it is better known today, formally stopped on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The armistice that ended the fighting had been drafted over the preceding three days and signed earlier that morning in the Forest of Compiègne in the railway car of Ferdinand Foch, the commander of the Allied forces. Although Allied troops had not yet reached German soil, Berlin knew the war was lost. Its allies had all been defeated and it was running short of food and military supplies. The four-plus years of fighting had left much of Europe decimated. An estimated 8,500,000 soldiers died as a result of wounds and disease; the number of civilian deaths was likely even higher. The war also destroyed the Austrian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires. Two months later, the Allied powers convened in Paris to set the final terms of the peace. They chose a punitive peace that sowed the seeds for an even more destructive war to come.

Other Significant Historical Anniversaries of Note in 2018. January 10 is the fifteenth anniversary of North Korea’s announcement that it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. January 14 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the Casablanca Conference. January 19 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. January 23 is the fiftieth anniversary of North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo. February 11 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of President Clinton nominating Janet Reno to be the first female U.S. Attorney General. February 24 is the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. House of Representatives voting to impeach President Andrew Johnson. February 25 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Ha My massacre in which South Korean soldiers killed 135 unarmed residents of the South Vietnamese village of Ha My. March 3 is the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which formally ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. March 16 is the fiftieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops killed as many as 500 Vietnamese women, children, and elderly. May 3 is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of student protests that shook France. July 10 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied invasion of Sicily. August 18 is the quincentennial of King Charles V of Spain authorizing the slave trade from Africa to the New World. September 19 is the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first self-governing country to grant women’s suffrage. November 3 is the centennial of Poland declaring independence from Russia. December 24 is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 8 becoming the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon.

On the Lighter Side. January 1 is the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. February 19 is the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. March 31 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of Oklahoma! appearing on Broadway. April 3 is the fiftieth anniversary of Planet of the Apes being released. April 6 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Little Prince by Antione de Saint- Exupéry. April 26 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Giver by Lois Lowry. April 29 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway debut of Hair. June 11 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Jurassic Park. August 26 is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Hey Jude by The Beatles. September 14 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Denny McClain of the Detroit Tigers winning his thirtieth game, the last Major League Baseball pitcher to achieve that feat. September 30 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet rolling off the production line. October 16 is the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. October 18 is the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Beamon demolishing the world record in the long jump at the Mexico City Olympics by jumping 8.9 meters. December 28 is the sixtieth anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in the first National Football League championship game to go into sudden death overtime. December 10 marks the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Enclyopædia Brittanica.

Corey Cooper and Benjamin Shaver contributed to the preparation of this post.

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