Consistently one of the highest ranked Presidents in United States history, far and away the longest serving President, and despite the long years since his death, one of the most controversial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was only 63 years old when he died. It was his thirteenth consecutive year as President, and the last year of World War Two.
Roosevelt had long suffered from polio and his health had become increasingly fragile in the last years of his life, with the stress of leading his nation through World War Two taking its toll on him. In the last months of his life, he was diagnosed as suffering from hardening of the arteries, and his death was the the result of a cerebral hemorrhage. His death shocked and dismayed America and her allies, as the details of Roosevelt’s health had been a closely held secret. The nation mourned his lost, and on V-E Day, less than a month later, President Harry S. Truman, who had succeeded Roosevelt, dedicated the victory to the fallen man.
“South Pacific” was a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, an anthology of short stories. The musical has a single coherent narrative drawing on some of those short stories while also including what was, for its time, a progressive social message about race.
The musical was a hit, running for 1925 performances on Broadway (at that time, the second most of any Broadway production) and winning a Pullitzer prize for drama in 1950. It has been filmed several times, and remains a perennial favourite for revivals.
Joe McCarthy was a shameless political hack who hitched his wagon to that never-failing engine of conservative vote winning: the United States’ phobic response to the word Communism. It all began with one speech, given before the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950. It hit all the notes he’d later become famous for: unsubstantiated accusations, specific numbers of people without anything resembling names, and the constant insistence that Communists in the USA (who numbered somewhere around 1% of 1% of the population) were imminently about to overthrow the government.
Over the next few years, McCarthy would go after the Reds under America’s beds, no matter where those beds might be. When he decided to take on the Red threat in the US military, he went too far. His meteoric career came to a screaming halt, and he died a pathetic alcoholic in 1957. But between 1950 and 1954, he changed the world – unfortunately, not for the better.
The Korean War was caused by the conditions holding since the end of World War Two. Korea had been split in half along the 38th parallel, with the USSR holding the north and the USA holding the south. As each sponsor state helped its occupied area to set up their own government, the two Koreas moved in increasingly different directions. Although negotiations for reunification continued almost up to the outbreak of war, tensions rose throughout the period especially from 1948 onwards.
On June 25th, 1950, North Korean forces poured over the border into South Korea, and the war began. The South Koreans were swiftly joined by a US-led coalition backed by the United Nations (the USSR was boycotting the UN Security Council at this point, and was thus unable to veto this action). The would last into 1953, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, until a ceasfire was negotiated, with the border still set roughly at the 38th parallel with little change to its pre-war location.
One of the wonder-fabrics of the Fifties, Dacron was the trade name of a particular polyester sold by Du Pont Chemical – the first from that company and the second overall (after Terylene). Its actual chemical name is Polyethylene terephthalate. It was first sold in New York, where it was used to make a variety of garments, most prominently men’s suits. Although a fashion sensation at the time, it has dropped out of favour since the technophiliac Fifties, and is no longer used as much in clothing.
Modern applications for Dacron include ropes (especially for nautical use) and artificial organs, especially hearts – both applications where Dacron’s lack of biodegradability is desirable.
Although it took nearly six months to reach #1 on the charts, reach that storied number it did, and made Johnnie Ray a star. The nature of the song, and the quality of his voice, saw Ray given many nicknames, such as “Mr. Emotion”, “The Nabob of Sob”, and “The Prince of Wails.”
In the years that followed, he would have several more hits, some with the Four Lads, some without. These included “Please Mr. Sun”, “Such a Night”, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”, “A Sinner Am I”, “Yes Tonight Josephine”, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” (which was the 1956 Christmas #1 in the UK) and “You Don’t Owe Me a Thing”.
But no other song ever matched “Cry” in chart performance, or its place in the hearts of his fans.
Rocky Marciano had been a professional boxer for only a little over four years when he defeated Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia. The 29 year old boxer defeated Walcott in a round 13 knockout, after a slow start that saw him behind on points for most of the bout.
Marciano would hold the World Heavyweight Champion title for three and a half years, successfully defending it six times before he retired from professional boxing on April 27, 1956. (Floyd Patterson would be the next holder of the title.)
The fall of Dien Bien Phu marked the unofficial end of French Indo-China. The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was comprehensively defeated by the Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries – the first time that a colonial occupier had been so defeated. The causes of the defeat are many, but the two most prominent are the evolution of the Viet Minh from a loose group of disorganised guerilla bands into a force equivalent to standing national army, and a series of poor decisions made by the French defenders.
The Vietnamese victory came only after 55 days of battle, with large losses on both sides: as many as 2000 French dead and over 4000 Vietnamese. The fighting was close and deadly, often resembling the trench warfare of World War One as the siege progressed. In the final victory, almost 12,000 French prisoners were taken, and many died in captivity from wounds received in the fighting, or as a result of beatings, disease and starvation while imprisoned.
The official end of the first Indo-China War came later that year, although it would cast a long shadow, inspiring other rebellions in the French colonies of Madagascar and Algeria, two separate coups d’état in France itself, and of course, the Second Indo-China War – better known today as the Vietnam War.
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock…
Rightly or wrongly, this is the song – and Bill Haley and his Comets are the band – that is remembered as the first rock and roll song. It’s simple, fun and catchy, and if you can listen to it without tapping your foot along in time, you most likely don’t have feet.
It went to number one in the US, the UK and Germany, and then used as the opening theme song of “Happy Days” two decades later, permanently burning it into the cultural collective unconscious.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was a colonel in the Egyptian army who wasn’t satisfied with the status quo of post-colonial Egypt. He had formed highly critical opinions of his political masters, especially King Farouk, as a result of his experiences in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Returning to Egypt, and drawing some inspiration from the contemporary coup d’etat in Syria, he began plotting revolution.
In 1952, the revolution began in earnest. Nasser and his allies eventually triumphed, with Muhammad Naguib becoming the first Egyptian President on June 18, 1953. But tensions between the factions of Nasser and Naguib were not eased by victory or the new responsibilities of government. After an assassination attempt that Nasser was able to blame on Naguib’s faction, which found its power greatly diminished by Nasser’s crackdown on them. Finally, in 1956, Nasser became the President de jure – he had had the de facto power of the title for a year or so by that point.
In 1957, there were no professional baseball teams in the World Series (that is, the baseball league of the USA) west of Missouri. In 1958, that would all change, and it was largely thanks to one man: Walter O’Malley, who owned the Dodgers from 1950 until 1979. He took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles – from Ebbets Field to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – and also persuaded the managers of the New York Giants (traditional rivals of the Dodgers) to relocate their team to San Francisco, preserving the rivalry (well, sort of).
To say that O’Malley is a controversial figure in baseball is little like saying that there’s a bright light in the sky called the Sun. Even today, he is still hated in some parts of Brooklyn – the Dodgers might have been a bunch of bums, but they were Brooklyn’s bums, dammit!
The facts, as generally agreed upon, are these:
At appoximately 1AM on February 3, 1959, Holly, Valens and Richardson (‘the Big Bopper’) boarded a plane in Clear Lake, Iowa, intending to fly to their next concert, in Moorhead, Minnesota. The three, flown by pilot Roger Peterson, were killed a short time later when their plane crashed.
The major cause of the crash appears to have been a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error. Peterson was not qualified for nighttime flights, and it also appears that he may have been given incorrect information regarding the weather conditions on that fateful night.
In the early days of space exploration, no government seemed ready to send humans into space. After all, no one knew what sort of effects exposure to conditions in space would have on human biology. But dogs and monkeys were fair game.
The United States launched monkey flights between 1948 and 1961, and France launched two monkey space flights in 1967. Most – but not all – monkeys were anesthetized before lift-off. Each monkey flew only one mission, although there were numerous back-up monkeys also went through the programs but never flew. Monkey species used included rhesus monkeys, cynomolgus monkeys, squirrel monkeys and pig-tailed macaques.
Able, was a rhesus monkey, and Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, and on May 28, 1959, aboard the JUPITER AM-18, they became the first living beings to successfully return to Earth after traveling in space. They travelled in excess of 16,000 km/h, and withstood 38 g (373 m/s²). Their names had no particular significance, being simply taken from a phonetic alphabet.
Able died on June 1, 1959 during surgery but Baker lived into old age, dying on November 29, 1984, She is buried on the grounds of the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and Able was preserved, and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
While there had been rumours about payola in the music industry for years, the practice became more prevalent in the 1950s as radio overtook jukeboxes as the primary way music was listened to. In 1959, the US Senate began to investigate these claims, dragging the whole sordid practice of pay for play into the light. DJs testified to taking payments of as much as $22,000 to play songs, and careers were ruined and reputations tarnished.
In an effort to combat the public reaction to the scandal, the National Association of Broadcasters announced heavy fines for DJs caught accepting such bribes. Later, they restructured the industry to make programme directors at each station instead responsible for deciding what to play – a decision that actually made payola easier for the record labels. It is widely believed that the practice of payola continues to this day with little change other than that the DJs no longer see a dime from it.
On May 1, American pilot Gary Powers was shot down while flying a Lockheed U-2 over the USSR on a covert surveillance mission, photographing military and other targets. Four days later, the American government released disinformation stating that Powers had gone missing and was presumed dead while flying over Northern Turkey. On May 7, Khrushchev released information demonstrating that the Americans had lied, causing a massive loss of face to the Eisenhower administration, and heightening Cold War tensions. Not only was Powers still alive, but his plain had been captured mostly intact. Indeed, the Soviets were even able to develop some of the photos Powers had taken.
This was unfortunate timing, to say the least, as the Four Powers summit in Paris was due to begin on May 14. Krushchev demanded an apology from the United States, and when Eisenhower proved recalcitrant, he walked out of the summit. Soviet-American relations deteriorated notably as a result of these incidents.
Powers was tried for espionage, pleaded guilty and was convicted on August 19, Although his sentence called for 3 year’s imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor, he served only one and three-quarter years of the sentence before returning to the West in a hostage swap deal.
One of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, Robert Anson Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” remains a cult favourite even today. In the 1960’s, it took a while to find a mainstream audience. Despite winning a Hugo (for Best Novel) in 1962, it was not until 1967 that the book became one of the texts most associated with the burgeoning hippie movement. The plot of the book basically concerns a messiah figure who comes to Earth from Mars and founds what he calls ‘the Church of All Worlds.’ It’s an open question whether the book’s emphasis on free love made it attractive to hippies, or whether the book introduced that idea.
Approximately 60,000 words were cut from the book when it was first published, presumably because they were considered too shocking at the time, and it was not until thirty years later (and three years after Heinlein’s death) in 1991 that the full version, some 220,000 words in length, was published. Neither version has ever been out of print.
Charles L. ‘Sonny’ Liston pushed hard to get his shot at the title. He was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who occasionally went a little too far – as in 1956, when he was charged with assault and served six months before being paroled. He was a strong fighter who won a large number of his fights by knockout. When Floyd Patterson finally let him in, after months of refusing on the grounds of Liston’s supposed Mob ties, he didn’t waste the opportunity.
Liston knocked Patterson out in the first round, winning the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. On July 22 of the following year, he did it again in the rematch.
But his triumph was short-lived. Cassius Clay beat him in their first bout in 1964, and again in 1965 (although by that time, Clay had renamed himself Muhammed Ali). Liston continued to fight, and won most of his bouts. He retired from professional boxing in 1970, and later died in early 1971, in suspicious circumstances.
Cardinal Montini of Milan has been considered by some as a potential papal candidate in 1958, but as a non-member of the College of Cardinals was not eligible for selection. Pope John XXIII was chosen instead, seen as something of a non-entity and a safe choice by those who voted for him. He turned out to be the greatest reformer the Papacy had seen in centuries, calling the epochal Vatican Council II that changed the dogma and practices of the Catholic Church more than any single event since the Council of Nicea 1600 years earlier.
John died in office, and Giovani Montini became Pope Paul VI, inheriting the still going on Vatican Council II, which he saw completed and its reforms implemented over the course of his 15 year reign. Paul’s particular focus was restoring relations with the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe who had split from the Catholic Church centuries earlier, but he excluded no one in his reaching out to all Christians, other faiths and even atheists. He was also the first Pope to visit six continents.
One of the defining events of its era, the assassination of President Kennedy remains a remarkably controversial one, even today. Conspiracy theories abound as to who shot Kennedy and why.
While the official story, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, with the rifle, in the book depository, is plausible, it is also notably incomplete – there are any number of holes and anomalies in it. The murder of Oswald only two days later, before he could stand trial, has done nothing to quell these uncertainties.
On a symbolic level, the death of Kennedy was the end of an era in many ways. Quite aside from the idealism that he brought to the nation, his death marked a change in the way America saw itself – no longer the lily-white paladin, but more the grim avenger willing do the dirty work no one else would – although in fairness, this change of self-image would take the rest of the decade to be complete.
Really, what needs to be said?
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took off from the Kennedy Space Center, near Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16. Four days later, the lunar landing module, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, landed on the Moon. They were supposed to take a sleep break, but Armstrong was impatient to walk on the moon – and who could blame him?
It was July 21 (UTC) by the time they began the EVA. They stayed on the lunar surface for about 150 minutes (15 minutes longer than was originally a plan). During this time, the two spoke to President Nixon in the White House, planted an American flag on the Moon, performed a number of scientific experiments and took numerous photographs, all of them now iconic images.
Despite what you may have heard, it is highly unlikely that the landings were faked. I do not believe that they were, and neither does Buzz Aldrin.
Woodstock Music & Art Fair (informally, Woodstock or The Woodstock Festival) was a music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition”, held from August 15 to August 18, 1969, at a dairy farm belonging to a Max Yasgur in the rural town of Bethel, New York. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is actually 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock, after being turned down from its original venue.
Thirty-two acts – inlcuding Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead – performed during the sometimes rainy weekend in front of nearly half a million concertgoers – the organisers had expected only 50,000. Woodstock has come to be seen as one of the high water marks of the hippie movement, and it is sometimes regarded as marking the end of the Sixties.
One imagines that the various acts who were invited but did not attend (those still alive, at any rate) – including the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan – probably still regret it.
In the early Eighties, getting a rock star to advertise your fizzy sugar drink was the done thing. Both Pepsi and Coca Cola got some of the biggest names of the era – David Bowie, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and others all recorded versions of their songs with the lyrics changed to spruik their sponsor’s drinks. But then Pepsi announced that they had won this arms race. They would produce an ad with the biggest star in the world, the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.
The ad was shot in late January, 1984. It was never completed and has never been screened, due to the events of January 24. On that day, Michael Jackson was injured in a pyrotechnics accident, setting his hair on fire and leaving him with second degree burns. Jackson suffered extreme pain from the burns, and developed a pain killer habit as a result. It was a terrible accident, one that too many marks the beginning of Jackson’s decline as an artist.