This Day in History

Syndicate content
This Day in History content from History.com for Lead Story
Updated: 3 hours 55 sec ago

October 23, 2002: Hostage crisis in Moscow theater

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:00pm

On October 23, 2002, about 50 Chechen rebels storm a Moscow theater, taking up to 700 people hostage during a sold-out performance of a popular musical.

The second act of the musical "Nord Ost" was just beginning at the Moscow Ball-Bearing Plant's Palace of Culture when an armed man walked onstage and fired a machine gun into the air. The terrorists—including a number of women with explosives strapped to their bodies—identified themselves as members of the Chechen Army. They had one demand: that Russian military forces begin an immediate and complete withdrawal from Chechnya, the war-torn region located north of the Caucasus Mountains.

Chechnya, with its predominately Muslim population, had long struggled to assert its independence. A disastrous two-year war ended in 1996, but Russian forces returned to the region just three years later after Russian authorities blamed Chechens for a series of bombings in Russia. In 2000, President Vladimir Putin was elected partly because of his hard-line position towards Chechnya and his public vow not to negotiate with terrorists.

After a 57-hour-standoff at the Palace of Culture, during which two hostages were killed, Russian special forces surrounded and raided the theater on the morning of October 26. Later it was revealed that they had pumped a powerful narcotic gas into the building, knocking nearly all of the terrorists and hostages unconscious before breaking into the walls and roof and entering through underground sewage tunnels. Most of the guerrillas and 120 hostages were killed during the raid. Security forces were later forced to defend the decision to use the dangerous gas, saying that only a complete surprise attack could have disarmed the terrorists before they had time to detonate their explosives.

After the theater crisis, Putin's government clamped down even harder on Chechnya, drawing accusations of kidnapping, torture and other atrocities. In response, Chechen rebels continued their terrorist attacks on Russian soil, including an alleged suicide bombing in a Moscow subway in February 2004 and another major hostage crisis at a Beslan school that September.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 22, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:00pm

In a televised speech of extraordinary gravity, President John F. Kennedy announces that U.S. spy planes have discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba. These missile sites—under construction but nearing completion—housed medium-range missiles capable of striking a number of major cities in the United States, including Washington, D.C. Kennedy announced that he was ordering a naval "quarantine" of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from transporting any more offensive weapons to the island and explained that the United States would not tolerate the existence of the missile sites currently in place. The president made it clear that America would not stop short of military action to end what he called a "clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace."

What is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis actually began on October 15, 1962—the day that U.S. intelligence personnel analyzing U-2 spy plane data discovered that the Soviets were building medium-range missile sites in Cuba. The next day, President Kennedy secretly convened an emergency meeting of his senior military, political, and diplomatic advisers to discuss the ominous development. The group became known as ExCom, short for Executive Committee. After rejecting a surgical air strike against the missile sites, ExCom decided on a naval quarantine and a demand that the bases be dismantled and missiles removed. On the night of October 22, Kennedy went on national television to announce his decision. During the next six days, the crisis escalated to a breaking point as the world tottered on the brink of nuclear war between the two superpowers.

On October 23, the quarantine of Cuba began, but Kennedy decided to give Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev more time to consider the U.S. action by pulling the quarantine line back 500 miles. By October 24, Soviet ships en route to Cuba capable of carrying military cargoes appeared to have slowed down, altered, or reversed their course as they approached the quarantine, with the exception of one ship—the tanker Bucharest. At the request of more than 40 nonaligned nations, U.N. Secretary-General U Thant sent private appeals to Kennedy and Khrushchev, urging that their governments "refrain from any action that may aggravate the situation and bring with it the risk of war." At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. military forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest military alert ever reached in the postwar era, as military commanders prepared for full-scale war with the Soviet Union.

On October 25, the aircraft carrier USS Essex and the destroyer USS Gearing attempted to intercept the Soviet tanker Bucharest as it crossed over the U.S. quarantine of Cuba. The Soviet ship failed to cooperate, but the U.S. Navy restrained itself from forcibly seizing the ship, deeming it unlikely that the tanker was carrying offensive weapons. On October 26, Kennedy learned that work on the missile bases was proceeding without interruption, and ExCom considered authorizing a U.S. invasion of Cuba. The same day, the Soviets transmitted a proposal for ending the crisis: The missile bases would be removed in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.

The next day, however, Khrushchev upped the ante by publicly calling for the dismantling of U.S. missile bases in Turkey under pressure from Soviet military commanders. While Kennedy and his crisis advisers debated this dangerous turn in negotiations, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed. To the dismay of the Pentagon, Kennedy forbid a military retaliation unless any more surveillance planes were fired upon over Cuba. To defuse the worsening crisis, Kennedy and his advisers agreed to dismantle the U.S. missile sites in Turkey but at a later date, in order to prevent the protest of Turkey, a key NATO member.

On October 28, Khrushchev announced his government's intent to dismantle and remove all offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba. With the airing of the public message on Radio Moscow, the USSR confirmed its willingness to proceed with the solution secretly proposed by the Americans the day before. In the afternoon, Soviet technicians began dismantling the missile sites, and the world stepped back from the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was effectively over. In November, Kennedy called off the blockade, and by the end of the year all the offensive missiles had left Cuba. Soon after, the United States quietly removed its missiles from Turkey.

The Cuban Missile Crisis seemed at the time a clear victory for the United States, but Cuba emerged from the episode with a much greater sense of security. A succession of U.S. administrations have honored Kennedy's pledge not to invade Cuba, and the communist island nation situated just 80 miles from Florida remains a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy. The removal of antiquated Jupiter missiles from Turkey had no detrimental effect on U.S. nuclear strategy, but the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced a humiliated USSR to commence a massive nuclear buildup. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity with the United States and built intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking any city in the United States.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 21, 1959: Guggenheim Museum opens in New York City

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1959, on New York City's Fifth Avenue, thousands of people line up outside a bizarrely shaped white concrete building that resembled a giant upside-down cupcake. It was opening day at the new Guggenheim Museum, home to one of the world's top collections of contemporary art.

Mining tycoon Solomon R. Guggenheim began collecting art seriously when he retired in the 1930s. With the help of Hilla Rebay, a German baroness and artist, Guggenheim displayed his purchases for the first time in 1939 in a former car showroom in New York. Within a few years, the collection—including works by Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall—had outgrown the small space. In 1943, Rebay contacted architect Frank Lloyd Wright and asked him to take on the work of designing not just a museum, but a "temple of spirit," where people would learn to see art in a new way. 

Over the next 16 years, until his death six months before the museum opened, Wright worked to bring his unique vision to life. To Wright's fans, the museum that opened on October 21, 1959, was a work of art in itself. Inside, a long ramp spiraled upwards for a total of a quarter-mile around a large central rotunda, topped by a domed glass ceiling. Reflecting Wright's love of nature, the 50,000-meter space resembled a giant seashell, with each room opening fluidly into the next.

Wright's groundbreaking design drew criticism as well as admiration. Some felt the oddly-shaped building didn't complement the artwork. They complained the museum was less about art and more about Frank Lloyd Wright. On the flip side, many others thought the architect had achieved his goal: a museum where building and art work together to create "an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony." 

Located on New York's impressive Museum Mile, at the edge of Central Park, the Guggenheim has become one of the city's most popular attractions. In 1993, the original building was renovated and expanded to create even more exhibition space. Today, Wright's creation continues to inspire awe, as well as odd comparisons—a Jello mold! a washing machine! a pile of twisted ribbon!—for many of the 900,000-plus visitors who visit the Guggenheim each year.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 20, 1947: Congress investigates Reds in Hollywood

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 11:00pm

On October 20, 1947, the notorious Red Scare kicks into high gear in Washington, as a Congressional committee begins investigating Communist influence in one of the world's richest and most glamorous communities: Hollywood.

After World War II, the Cold War began to heat up between the world's two superpowers—the United States and the communist-controlled Soviet Union. In Washington, conservative watchdogs worked to out communists in government before setting their sights on alleged "Reds" in the famously liberal movie industry. In an investigation that began in October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grilled a number of prominent witnesses, asking bluntly "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Whether out of patriotism or fear, some witnesses—including director Elia Kazan, actors Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor and studio honchos Walt Disney and Jack Warner—gave the committee names of colleagues they suspected of being communists.

A small group known as the "Hollywood Ten" resisted, complaining that the hearings were illegal and violated their First Amendment rights. They were all convicted of obstructing the investigation and served jail terms. Pressured by Congress, the Hollywood establishment started a blacklist policy, banning the work of about 325 screenwriters, actors and directors who had not been cleared by the committee. Those blacklisted included composer Aaron Copland, writers Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, playwright Arthur Miller and actor and filmmaker Orson Welles.

Some of the blacklisted writers used pseudonyms to continue working, while others wrote scripts that were credited to other writer friends. Starting in the early 1960s, after the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most public face of anti-communism, the ban began to lift slowly. In 1997, the Writers' Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period, reversing—but not erasing—some of the damage done during the Red Scare.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 19, 1781: Victory at Yorktown

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 11:00pm

Hopelessly trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis surrenders 8,000 British soldiers and seamen to a larger Franco-American force, effectively bringing an end to the American Revolution.

Lord Cornwallis was one of the most capable British generals of the American Revolution. In 1776, he drove General George Washington's Patriots forces out of New Jersey, and in 1780 he won a stunning victory over General Horatio Gates' Patriot army at Camden, South Carolina. Cornwallis' subsequent invasion of North Carolina was less successful, however, and in April 1781 he led his weary and battered troops toward the Virginia coast, where he could maintain seaborne lines of communication with the large British army of General Henry Clinton in New York City. After conducting a series of raids against towns and plantations in Virginia, Cornwallis settled in the tidewater town of Yorktown in August. The British immediately began fortifying the town and the adjacent promontory of Gloucester Point across the York River.

General George Washington instructed the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in Virginia with an American army of around 5,000 men, to block Cornwallis' escape from Yorktown by land. In the meantime, Washington's 2,500 troops in New York were joined by a French army of 4,000 men under the Count de Rochambeau. Washington and Rochambeau made plans to attack Cornwallis with the assistance of a large French fleet under the Count de Grasse, and on August 21 they crossed the Hudson River to march south to Yorktown. Covering 200 miles in 15 days, the allied force reached the head of Chesapeake Bay in early September.

Meanwhile, a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves failed to break French naval superiority at the Battle of Virginia Capes on September 5, denying Cornwallis his expected reinforcements. Beginning September 14, de Grasse transported Washington and Rochambeau's men down the Chesapeake to Virginia, where they joined Lafayette and completed the encirclement of Yorktown on September 28. De Grasse landed another 3,000 French troops carried by his fleet. During the first two weeks of October, the 14,000 Franco-American troops gradually overcame the fortified British positions with the aid of de Grasse's warships. A large British fleet carrying 7,000 men set out to rescue Cornwallis, but it was too late.

On October 19, General Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate, and 30 transport ships. Pleading illness, he did not attend the surrender ceremony, but his second-in-command, General Charles O'Hara, carried Cornwallis' sword to the American and French commanders. As the British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender, the British bands played the song "The World Turned Upside Down."

Although the war persisted on the high seas and in other theaters, the Patriot victory at Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the American colonies. Peace negotiations began in 1782, and on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the United States as a free and independent nation after eight years of war.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 18, 1867: U.S. takes possession of Alaska

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1867, the U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia for $7.2 million, or less than two cents an acre. The Alaska purchase comprised 586,412 square miles, about twice the size of Texas, and was championed by William Henry Seward, the enthusiasticly expansionist secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson.

Russia wanted to sell its Alaska territory, which was remote, sparsely populated and difficult to defend, to the U.S. rather than risk losing it in battle with a rival such as Great Britain. Negotiations between Seward (1801-1872) and the Russian minister to the U.S., Eduard de Stoeckl, began in March 1867. However, the American public believed the land to be barren and worthless and dubbed the purchase "Seward's Folly" and "Andrew Johnson's Polar Bear Garden," among other derogatory names. Some animosity toward the project may have been a byproduct of President Johnson's own unpopularity. As the 17th U.S. president, Johnson battled with Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. He was impeached in 1868 and later acquitted by a single vote. Nevertheless, Congress eventually ratified the Alaska deal. Public opinion of the purchase turned more favorable when gold was discovered in a tributary of Alaska's Klondike River in 1896, sparking a gold rush. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, and is now recognized for its vast natural resources. Today, 25 percent of America's oil and over 50 percent of its seafood come from Alaska. It is also the largest state in area, about one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states combined, though it remains sparsely populated. The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word alyeska, which means "great land." Alaska has two official state holidays to commemorate its origins: Seward's Day, observed the last Monday in March, celebrates the March 30, 1867, signing of the land treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and Alaska Day, observed every October 18, marks the anniversary of the formal land transfer.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 17, 1931: Capone goes to prison

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 1931, gangster Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion and fined $80,000, signaling the downfall of one of the most notorious criminals of the 1920s and 1930s.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899 to Italian immigrants. He was expelled from school at 14, joined a gang and earned his nickname "Scarface" after being sliced across the cheek during a fight. By 1920, Capone had moved to Chicago, where he was soon helping to run crime boss Johnny Torrio's illegal enterprises, which included alcohol-smuggling, gambling and prostitution. Torrio retired in 1925 after an attempt on his life and Capone, known for his cunning and brutality, was put in charge of the organization.

Prohibition, which outlawed the brewing and distribution of alcohol and lasted from 1920 to 1933, proved extremely lucrative for bootleggers and gangsters like Capone, who raked in millions from his underworld activities. Capone was at the top of the F.B.I.'s "Most Wanted" list by 1930, but he avoided long stints in jail until 1931 by bribing city officials, intimidating witnesses and maintaining various hideouts. He became Chicago's crime kingpin by wiping out his competitors through a series of gangland battles and slayings, including the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, when Capone's men gunned down seven rivals. This event helped raise Capone's notoriety to a national level.

Among Capone's enemies was federal agent Elliot Ness, who led a team of officers known as "The Untouchables" because they couldn't be corrupted. Ness and his men routinely broke up Capone's bootlegging businesses, but it was tax-evasion charges that finally stuck and landed Capone in prison in 1931. Capone began serving his time at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, but amid accusations that he was manipulating the system and receiving cushy treatment, he was transferred to the maximum-security lockup at Alcatraz Island, in California's San Francisco Bay. He got out early in 1939 for good behavior, after spending his final year in prison in a hospital, suffering from syphilis.

Plagued by health problems for the rest of his life, Capone died in 1947 at age 48 at his home in Palm Island, Florida.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 16, 1934: The Long March

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 11:00pm

The embattled Chinese Communists break through Nationalist enemy lines and begin an epic flight from their encircled headquarters in southwest China. Known as Ch'ang Cheng—the "Long March"—the retreat lasted 368 days and covered 6,000 miles, nearly twice the distance from New York to San Francisco.

Civil war in China between the Nationalists and the Communists broke out in 1927. In 1931, Communist leader Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the newly established Soviet Republic of China, based in Kiangsi province in the southwest. Between 1930 and 1934, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek launched a series of five encirclement campaigns against the Soviet Republic. Under the leadership of Mao, the Communists employed guerrilla tactics to resist successfully the first four campaigns, but in the fifth, Chiang raised 700,000 troops and built fortifications around the Communist positions. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were killed or died of starvation in the siege, and Mao was removed as chairman by the Communist Central Committee. The new Communist leadership employed more conventional warfare tactics, and its Red Army was decimated.

With defeat imminent, the Communists decided to break out of the encirclement at its weakest points. The Long March began at 5:00 p.m. on October 16, 1934. Secrecy and rear-guard actions confused the Nationalists, and it was several weeks before they realized that the main body of the Red Army had fled. The retreating force initially consisted of 86,000 troops, 15,000 personnel, and 35 women. Weapons and supplies were borne on men's backs or in horse-drawn carts, and the line of marchers stretched for 50 miles. The Communists generally marched at night, and when the enemy was not near, a long column of torches could be seen snaking over valleys and hills into the distance.

The first disaster came in November, when Nationalist forces blocked the Communists' route across the Hsiang River. It took a week for the Communists to break through the fortifications and cost them 50,000 men—more than half their number. After that debacle, Mao steadily regained his influence, and in January he was again made chairman during a meeting of the party leaders in the captured city of Tsuni. Mao changed strategy, breaking his force into several columns that would take varying paths to confuse the enemy. There would be no more direct assaults on enemy positions. And the destination would now be Shensi Province, in the far northwest, where the Communists hoped to fight the Japanese invaders and earn the respect of China's masses.

After enduring starvation, aerial bombardment, and almost daily skirmishes with Nationalist forces, Mao halted his columns at the foot of the Great Wall of China on October 20, 1935. Waiting for them were five machine-gun- and red-flag-bearing horsemen. "Welcome, Chairman Mao," one said. "We represent the Provincial Soviet of Northern Shensi. We have been waiting for you anxiously. All that we have is at your disposal!" The Long March was over.

The Communist marchers crossed 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges, mostly snow-capped. Only 4,000 troops completed the journey. The majority of those who did not perished. It was the longest continuous march in the history of warfare and marked the emergence of Mao Zedong as the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communists. Learning of the Communists' heroism and determination in the Long March, thousands of young Chinese traveled to Shensi to enlist in Mao's Red Army. After fighting the Japanese for a decade, the Chinese Civil War resumed in 1945. Four years later, the Nationalists were defeated, and Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China. He served as chairman until his death in 1976.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 15, 1917: Mata Hari executed

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 11:00pm

Mata Hari, the archetype of the seductive female spy, is executed for espionage by a French firing squad at Vincennes outside of Paris.

She first came to Paris in 1905 and found fame as a performer of exotic Asian-inspired dances. She soon began touring all over Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari, meaning "eye of the day" in Malay. In reality, Mata Hari was born in a small town in northern Holland in 1876, and her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She acquired her superficial knowledge of Indian and Javanese dances when she lived for several years in Malaysia with her former husband, who was a Scot in the Dutch colonial army. Regardless of her authenticity, she packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France, mostly because her show consisted of her slowly stripping nude.

She became a famous courtesan, and with the outbreak of World War I her catalog of lovers began to include high-ranking military officers of various nationalities. In February 1917, French authorities arrested her for espionage and imprisoned her at St. Lazare Prison in Paris. In a military trial conducted in July, she was accused of revealing details of the Allies' new weapon, the tank, resulting in the deaths of thousands of soldiers. She was convicted and sentenced to death, and on October 15 she refused a blindfold and was shot to death by a firing squad at Vincennes.

There is some evidence that Mata Hari acted as a German spy, and for a time as a double agent for the French, but the Germans had written her off as an ineffective agent whose pillow talk had produced little intelligence of value. Her military trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, and it is probable that French authorities trumped her up as "the greatest woman spy of the century" as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the western front. Her only real crimes may have been an elaborate stage fallacy and a weakness for men in uniform.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 14, 1947: Yeager breaks sound barrier

Mon, 10/13/2014 - 11:00pm

U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager becomes the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.

Yeager, born in Myra, West Virginia, in 1923, was a combat fighter during World War II and flew 64 missions over Europe. He shot down 13 German planes and was himself shot down over France, but he escaped capture with the assistance of the French Underground. After the war, he was among several volunteers chosen to test-fly the experimental X-1 rocket plane, built by the Bell Aircraft Company to explore the possibility of supersonic flight.

For years, many aviators believed that man was not meant to fly faster than the speed of sound, theorizing that transonic drag rise would tear any aircraft apart. All that changed on October 14, 1947, when Yeager flew the X-1 over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California. The X-1 was lifted to an altitude of 25,000 feet by a B-29 aircraft and then released through the bomb bay, rocketing to 40,000 feet and exceeding 662 miles per hour (the sound barrier at that altitude). The rocket plane, nicknamed "Glamorous Glennis," was designed with thin, unswept wings and a streamlined fuselage modeled after a .50-caliber bullet.

Because of the secrecy of the project, Bell and Yeager's achievement was not announced until June 1948. Yeager continued to serve as a test pilot, and in 1953 he flew 1,650 miles per hour in an X-1A rocket plane. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1975 with the rank of brigadier general.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 13, 1792: White House cornerstone laid

Sun, 10/12/2014 - 11:00pm

The cornerstone is laid for a presidential residence in the newly designated capital city of Washington. In 1800, President John Adams became the first president to reside in the executive mansion, which soon became known as the "White House" because its white-gray Virginia freestone contrasted strikingly with the red brick of nearby buildings.

The city of Washington was created to replace Philadelphia as the nation's capital because of its geographical position in the center of the existing new republic. The states of Maryland and Virginia ceded land around the Potomac River to form the District of Columbia, and work began on Washington in 1791. French architect Charles L'Enfant designed the area's radical layout, full of dozens of circles, crisscross avenues, and plentiful parks. In 1792, work began on the neoclassical White House building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue under the guidance of Irish American architect James Hoban, whose design was influenced by Leinster House in Dublin and by a building sketch in James Gibbs' Book of Architecture. President George Washington chose the site.

On November 1, President John Adams was welcomed into the executive mansion. His wife, Abigail, wrote about their new home: "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise men ever rule under this roof!"

In 1814, during the War of 1812, the White House was set on fire along with the U.S. Capitol by British soldiers in retaliation for the burning of government buildings in Canada by U.S. troops. The burned-out building was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged under the direction of James Hoban, who added east and west terraces to the main building, along with a semicircular south portico and a colonnaded north portico. The smoke-stained stone walls were painted white. Work was completed on the White House in the 1820s.

Major restoration occurred during the administration of President Harry Truman, and Truman lived across the street for several years in Blair House. Since 1995, Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Lafayette Square has been closed to vehicular traffic for security reasons. Today, more than a million tourists visit the White House annually. It is the oldest federal building in the nation's capital.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 12, 1492: Columbus reaches the New World

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 11:00pm

After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sights a Bahamian island, believing he has reached East Asia. His expedition went ashore the same day and claimed the land for Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who sponsored his attempt to find a western ocean route to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.

Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Little is known of his early life, but he worked as a seaman and then a maritime entrepreneur. He became obsessed with the possibility of pioneering a western sea route to Cathay (China), India, and the gold and spice islands of Asia. At the time, Europeans knew no direct sea route to southern Asia, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes. Contrary to popular legend, educated Europeans of Columbus' day did believe that the world was round, as argued by St. Isidore in the seventh century. However, Columbus, and most others, underestimated the world's size, calculating that East Asia must lie approximately where North America sits on the globe (they did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed).

With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his "Enterprise of the Indies," as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. On October 12, the expedition reached land, probably Watling Island in the Bahamas. Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba, which he thought was mainland China, and in December the expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. He established a small colony there with 39 of his men. The explorer returned to Spain with gold, spices, and "Indian" captives in March 1493 and was received with the highest honors by the Spanish court. He was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century.

During his lifetime, Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands, but he never accomplished his original goal—a western ocean route to the great cities of Asia. Columbus died in Spain in 1506 without realizing the great scope of what he did achieve: He had discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 11, 2002: Jimmy Carter wins Nobel Prize

Fri, 10/10/2014 - 11:00pm

On this day in 2002, former President Jimmy Carter wins the Nobel Peace Prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, served one term as U.S. president between 1977 and 1981. One of his key achievements as president was mediating the peace talks between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The Nobel Committee had wanted to give Carter (1924- ) the prize that year for his efforts, along with Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, but was prevented from doing so by a technicality--he had not been nominated by the official deadline.

After he left office, Carter and his wife Rosalynn created the Atlanta-based Carter Center in 1982 to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering. Since 1984, they have worked with Habitat for Humanity to build homes and raise awareness of homelessness. Among his many accomplishments, Carter has helped to fight disease and improve economic growth in developing nations and has served as an observer at numerous political elections around the world.

The first Nobel Prizes--awards established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) in his will--were handed out in Sweden in 1901 in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The Nobel Prize in economics was first awarded in 1969. Carter was the third U.S. president to receive the award, worth $1 million, following Theodore Roosevelt (1906) and Woodrow Wilson (1919).

Categories: Fun Stuff

October 10, 1985: Achille Lauro hijacking ends

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 11:00pm

The hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro reaches a dramatic climax when U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercept an Egyptian airliner attempting to fly the Palestinian hijackers to freedom and force the jet to land at a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. American and Italian troops surrounded the plane, and the terrorists were taken into Italian custody.

On October 7, four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Some 320 crewmembers and 80 passengers, were taken hostage. Hundreds of other passengers had disembarked the cruise ship earlier that day to visit Cairo and tour the Egyptian pyramids. Identifying themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front--a Palestinian splinter group--the gunmen demanded the release of 50 Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel. If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the ship and kill the 11 Americans on board. The next morning, they also threatened to kill the British passengers.

The Achille Lauro traveled to the Syrian port of Tartus, where the terrorists demanded negotiations on October 8. Syria refused to permit the ship to anchor in its waters, which prompted more threats from the hijackers. That afternoon, they shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish-American who was confined to a wheelchair as the result of a stroke. His body was then pushed overboard in the wheelchair.

Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) condemned the hijacking, and PLO officials joined with Egyptian authorities in attempting to resolve the crisis. On the recommendation of the negotiators, the cruise ship traveled to Port Said. On October 9, the hijackers surrendered to Egyptian authorities and freed the hostages in exchange for a pledge of safe passage to an undisclosed destination.

The next day--October 10--the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 airliner, along with Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front who had participated in the negotiations; a PLO official; and several Egyptians. The 737 took off from Cairo at 4:15 p.m. EST and headed for Tunisia. President Ronald Reagan gave his final order approving the plan to intercept the aircraft, and at 5:30 p.m. EST, F-14 Tomcat fighters located the airliner 80 miles south of Crete. Without announcing themselves, the F-14s trailed the airliner as it sought and was denied permission to land at Tunis. After a request to land at the Athens airport was likewise refused, the F-14s turned on their lights and flew wing-to-wing with the airliner. The aircraft was ordered to land at a NATO air base in Sicily, and the pilot complied, touching down at 6:45 p.m. The hijackers were arrested soon after. Abbas and the other Palestinian were released, prompting criticism from the United States, which wanted to investigate their possible involvement in the hijacking.

On July 10, 1986, an Italian court later convicted three of the terrorists and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years. Three others, including Mohammed Abbas, were convicted in absentia for masterminding the hijacking and sentenced to life in prison. They received harsher penalties because, unlike the hijackers, who the court found were acting for "patriotic motives," Abbas and the others conceived the hijacking as a "selfish political act" designed "to weaken the leadership of Yasir Arafat." The fourth hijacker was a minor who was tried and convicted separately.

Categories: Fun Stuff