Subject: December 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Scotland
On this day in 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York explodes in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew members aboard, as well as 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground. A bomb hidden inside an audio cassette player detonated in the cargo area when the plane was at an altitude of 31,000 feet. The disaster, which became the subject of Britain's largest criminal investigation, was believed to be an attack against the United States. One hundred eighty nine of the victims were American.
Islamic terrorists were accused of planting the bomb on the plane while it was at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. Authorities suspected the attack was in retaliation for either the 1986 U.S. air strikes against Libya, in which leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's young daughter was killed along with dozens of other people, or a 1988 incident, in which the U.S. mistakenly shot down an Iran Air commercial flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people.
Sixteen days before the explosion over Lockerbie, the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, received a call warning that a bomb would be placed on a Pan Am flight out of Frankfurt. There is controversy over how seriously the U.S. took the threat and whether travelers should have been alerted, but officials later said that the connection between the call and the bomb was coincidental.
In 1991, following a joint investigation by the British authorities and the F.B.I., Libyan intelligence agents Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were indicted for murder; however, Libya refused to hand over the suspects to the U.S. Finally, in 1999, in an effort to ease United Nations sanctions against his country, Qaddafi agreed to turn over the two men to Scotland for trial in the Netherlands using Scottish law and prosecutors. In early 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison and Fhimah was acquitted.
In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing, but didn't express remorse. The U.N. and U.S. lifted sanctions against Libya and Libya agreed to pay each victim's family approximately $8 million in restitution. In 2004, Libya's prime minister said that the deal was the "price for peace," implying that his country only took responsibility to get the sanctions lifted, a statement that infuriated the victims' families. Pan Am Airlines, which went bankrupt three years after the bombing, sued Libya and later received a $30 million settlement.
Subject: December 22, 1956: First gorilla born in captivity
On this day in 1956, a baby gorilla named Colo enters the world at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, becoming the first-ever gorilla born in captivity. Weighing in at approximately 4 pounds, Colo, a western lowland gorilla whose name was a combination of Columbus and Ohio, was the daughter of Millie and Mac, two gorillas captured in French Cameroon, Africa, who were brought to the Columbus Zoo in 1951. Before Colo's birth, gorillas found at zoos were caught in the wild, often by brutal means. In order to capture a gorilla when it was young and therefore still small enough to handle, hunters frequently had to kill the gorilla's parents and other family members.
Gorillas are peaceful, intelligent animals, native to Africa, who live in small groups led by one adult male, known as a silverback. There are three subspecies of gorilla: western lowland, eastern lowland and mountain. The subspecies are similar and the majority of gorillas in captivity are western lowland. Gorillas are vegetarians whose only natural enemy is the humans who hunt them. On average, a gorilla lives to 35 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.
At the time Colo was born, captive gorillas often never learned parenting skills from their own parents in the wild, so the Columbus Zoo built her a nursery and she was reared by zookeepers. In the years since Colo's arrival, zookeepers have developed habitats that simulate a gorilla's natural environment and many captive-born gorillas are now raised by their mothers. In situations where this doesn't work, zoos have created surrogacy programs, in which the infants are briefly cared for by humans and then handed over to other gorillas to raise.
Colo, who generated enormous public interest and is still alive today, went on to become a mother, grandmother, and in 1996, a great-grandmother to Timu, the first surviving infant gorilla conceived by artificial insemination. Timu gave birth to her first baby in 2003.
Today, there are approximately 750 gorillas in captivity around the world and an estimated 100,000 lowland gorillas (and far fewer mountain gorillas) remaining in the wild. Most zoos are active in captive breeding programs and have agreed not to buy gorillas born in the wild. Since Colo's birth, 30 gorillas have been born at the Columbus Zoo alone.
Subject: December 23, 1888: Van Gogh chops off ear
On this day in 1888, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, suffering from severe depression, cuts off the lower part of his left ear with a razor while staying in Arles, France. He later documented the event in a painting titled Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Today, Van Gogh is regarded as an artistic genius and his masterpieces sell for record-breaking prices; however, during his lifetime, he was a poster boy for tortured starving artists and sold only one painting.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the Netherlands. He had a difficult, nervous personality and worked unsuccessfully at an art gallery and then as a preacher among poor miners in Belgium. In 1880, he decided to become an artist. His work from this period--the most famous of which is The Potato Eaters (1885)--is dark and somber and reflective of the experiences he had among peasants and impoverished miners.
In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris where his younger brother Theo, with whom he was close, lived. Theo, an art dealer, supported his brother financially and introduced him to a number of artists, including Paul Gauguin, Camille Pisarro and Georges Seurat. Influenced by these and other painters, Van Gogh's own artistic style lightened up and he began using more color.
In 1888, Van Gogh rented a house in Arles in the south of France, where he hoped to found an artists' colony and be less of a burden to his brother. In Arles, Van Gogh painted vivid scenes from the countryside as well as still-lifes, including his famous sunflower series. Gauguin came to stay with him in Arles and the two men worked together for almost two months. However, tensions developed and on December 23, in a fit of dementia, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a knife before turning it on himself and mutilating his ear lobe. Afterward, he allegedly wrapped up the ear and gave it to a prostitute at a nearby brothel. Following that incident, Van Gogh was hospitalized in Arles and then checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy for a year. During his stay in Saint-Remy, he fluctuated between periods of madness and intense creativity, in which he produced some of his best and most well-known works, including Starry Night and Irises.
In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he continued to be plagued by despair and loneliness. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself and died two days later at age 37.
Subject: December 24, 1979: Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan
On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, under the pretext of upholding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty of 1978.
As midnight approached, the Soviets organized a massive military airlift into Kabul, involving an estimated 280 transport aircraft and three divisions of almost 8,500 men each. Within a few days, the Soviets had secured Kabul, deploying a special assault unit against Tajberg Palace. Elements of the Afghan army loyal to Hafizullah Amin put up a fierce, but brief resistance.
On December 27, Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was installed as Afghanistan’s new head of government. And Soviet ground forces entered Afghanistan from the north.
The Soviets, however, were met with fierce resistance when they ventured out of their strongholds into the countryside. Resistance fighters, called mujahidin, saw the Christian or atheist Soviets controlling Afghanistan as a defilement of Islam as well as of their traditional culture. Proclaiming a "jihad"(holy war), they gained the support of the Islamic world.
The mujahidin employed guerrilla tactics against the Soviets. They would attack or raid quickly, then disappear into the mountains, causing great destruction without pitched battles. The fighters used whatever weapons they could grab from the Soviets or were given by the United States.
The tide of the war turned with the 1987 introduction of U.S. shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. The Stingers allowed the mujahidin to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters on a regular basis.
New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out. Demoralized and with no victory in sight, Soviet forces started withdrawing in 1988. The last Soviet soldier crossed back across the border on February 15, 1989.
It was the first Soviet military expedition beyond the Eastern bloc since World War II and marked the end of a period of improving relations (known as détente) in the Cold War. Subsequently, the SALT II arms treaty was shelved and the U.S. began to re-arm.
Fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers were killed.
The long-term impact of the invasion and subsequent war was profound. First, the Soviets never recovered from the public relations and financial losses, which significantly contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. Secondly, the war created a breeding ground for terrorism and the rise of Osama bin Laden.
Subject: December 25, 1914: The Christmas Truce
Just after midnight on Christmas morning, the majority of German troops engaged in World War I cease firing their guns and artillery and commence to sing Christmas carols. At certain points along the eastern and western fronts, the soldiers of Russia, France, and Britain even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.
At the first light of dawn, many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man's-land, calling out "Merry Christmas" in their enemies' native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. In 1915, the bloody conflict of World War I erupted in all its technological fury, and the concept of another Christmas Truce became unthinkable.
Subject: December 26, 1946: Bugsy Siegel opens Flamingo Hotel
On December 26, 1946, in Las Vegas, Nevada, mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel opens The Pink Flamingo Hotel & Casino at a total cost of $6 million. The 40-acre facility wasn't complete and Siegel was hoping to raise some revenue with the grand opening.
Well-known singer and comedian Jimmy Durante headlined the entertainment, with music by Cuban band leader Xavier Cugat. Some of Siegel's Hollywood friends, including actors George Raft, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts and George Jessel were in attendance.
The grand opening, however, was a flop. Bad weather kept many other Hollywood guests from arriving. And because gamblers had no rooms at the hotel, they took their winnings and gambled elsewhere. The casino lost $300,000 in the first week of operation.
Siegel and his New York "partners" had invested $1 million in a property already under construction by Billy Wilkerson, owner of the Hollywood Reporter as well as some very popular nightclubs in the Sunset Strip. Wilkerson had wanted to recreate the Sunset Strip in Las Vegas, with a European style hotel with luxuious rooms, a spa, health club, showroom, golf course, nightclub and upscale restaurant. But he soon ran out of money due to the high cost of materials immediately after the war.
Siegel, who held a largest interest in the racing publication Trans America Wire, was drawn to Las Vegas in 1945 by his interest in legalized gambling and off-track betting. He purchased The El Cortez hotel for $600,000 and later sold it for a $166,000 profit.
Siegel and his organized crime buddies used the profits to influence Wilkerson to accept new partners. Siegel took over the project and supervised the building, naming it after his girlfriend Virginia Hill, whose nickname was "The Flamingo" because of her red hair and long legs.
Two weeks after the grand opening, the Flamingo closed down. It re-opened March 1, 1947, as The Fabulous Flamingo. Siegel forced Wilkerson out in April, and by May, the resort reported a profit, but it wasn't enough to save Siegel.
Convinced that Siegel wasn't giving them a "square count," it is widely believed that his partners in organized crime had him killed while he was reading the paper June 20, 1947, at Hill's Beverly Hills mansion. Hill was in Paris, having flown the coop after a fight with Siegel 10 days prior. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
Surviving a series of name and ownership changes, the hotel is known today as The Flamingo Las Vegas, owned and operated by Harrah's Entertainment. The property offers 3,626 hotel rooms and a 77,000-square-foot casino.
Subject: December 27, 1932: Radio City Music Hall opens
At the height of the Great Depression, thousands turn out for the opening of Radio City Music Hall, a magnificent Art Deco theater in New York City. Radio City Music Hall was designed as a palace for the people, a place of beauty where ordinary people could see high-quality entertainment. Since its 1932 opening, more than 300 million people have gone to Radio City to enjoy movies, stage shows, concerts, and special events.
Radio City Music Hall was the brainchild of the billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who decided to make the theater the cornerstone of the Rockefeller Complex he was building in a formerly derelict neighborhood in midtown Manhattan. The theater was built in partnership with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and designed by Donald Deskey. The result was an Art Deco masterpiece of elegance and grace constructed out of a diverse variety of materials, including aluminum, gold foil, marble, permatex, glass, and cork. Geometric ornamentation is found throughout the theater, as is Deskey's central theme of the "Progress of Man." The famous Great Stage, measuring 60 feet wide and 100 feet long, resembles a setting sun. Its sophisticated system of hydraulic-powered elevators allowed spectacular effects in staging, and many of its original mechanisms are still in use today.
In its first four decades, Radio City Music Hall alternated as a first-run movie theater and a site for gala stage shows. More than 700 films have premiered at Radio City Music Hall since 1933. In the late 1970s, the theater changed its format and began staging concerts by popular music artists. The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, which debuted in 1933, draws more than a million people annually. The show features the high-kicking Rockettes, a precision dance troupe that has been a staple at Radio City since the 1930s.
In 1999, the Hall underwent a seven-month, $70 million restoration. Today, Radio City Music Hall remains the largest indoor theater in the world.
Subject: December 28, 1895: First commercial movie screened
On this day in 1895, the world's first commercial movie screening takes place at the Grand Cafe in Paris. The film was made by Louis and Auguste Lumiere, two French brothers who developed a camera-projector called the Cinematographe. The Lumiere brothers unveiled their invention to the public in March 1895 with a brief film showing workers leaving the Lumiere factory. On December 28, the entrepreneurial siblings screened a series of short scenes from everyday French life and charged admission for the first time.
Movie technology has its roots in the early 1830s, when Joseph Plateau of Belgium and Simon Stampfer of Austria simultaneously developed a device called the phenakistoscope, which incorporated a spinning disc with slots through which a series of drawings could be viewed, creating the effect of a single moving image. The phenakistoscope, considered the precursor of modern motion pictures, was followed by decades of advances and in 1890, Thomas Edison and his assistant William Dickson developed the first motion-picture camera, called the Kinetograph. The next year, 1891, Edison invented the Kinetoscope, a machine with a peephole viewer that allowed one person to watch a strip of film as it moved past a light.
In 1894, Antoine Lumiere, the father of Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948), saw a demonstration of Edison's Kinetoscope. The elder Lumiere was impressed, but reportedly told his sons, who ran a successful photographic plate factory in Lyon, France, that they could come up with something better. Louis Lumiere's Cinematographe, which was patented in 1895, was a combination movie camera and projector that could display moving images on a screen for an audience. The Cinematographe was also smaller, lighter and used less film than Edison's technology.
The Lumieres opened theaters (known as cinemas) in 1896 to show their work and sent crews of cameramen around the world to screen films and shoot new material. In America, the film industry quickly took off. In 1896, Vitascope Hall, believed to be the first theater in the U.S. devoted to showing movies, opened in New Orleans. In 1909, The New York Times published its first film review (of D.W. Griffith's "Pippa Passes"), in 1911 the first Hollywood film studio opened and in 1914, Charlie Chaplin made his big-screen debut.
In addition to the Cinematographe, the Lumieres also developed the first practical color photography process, the Autochrome plate, which debuted in 1907.
Subject: December 29, 1890: U.S. Army massacres Indians at Wounded Knee
On this day in 1890, in the final chapter of America's long Indian wars, the U.S. Cavalry kills 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
Throughout 1890, the U.S. government worried about the increasing influence at Pine Ridge of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians. On December 15, 1890, reservation police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, who they mistakenly believed was a Ghost Dancer, and killed him in the process, increasing the tensions at Pine Ridge.
On December 29, the U.S. Army's 7th cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it's unclear from which side. A brutal massacre followed, in which it's estimated almost 150 Indians were killed (some historians put this number at twice as high), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost 25 men.
The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle, but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Surrounded by heavily armed troops, it's unlikely that Big Foot's band would have intentionally started a fight. Some historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment's defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last major confrontation in America's deadly war against the Plains Indians.
Conflict came to Wounded Knee again in February 1973 when it was the site of a 71-day occupation by the activist group AIM (American Indian Movement) and its supporters, who were protesting the U.S. government's mistreatment of Native Americans. During the standoff, two Indians were killed, one federal marshal was seriously wounded and numerous people were arrested.
Subject: December 30, 1922: USSR established
In post-revolutionary Russia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is established, comprising a confederation of Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian Federation (divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Azerbaijan, and Armenian republics). Also known as the Soviet Union, the new communist state was the successor to the Russian Empire and the first country in the world to be based on Marxist socialism.
During the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent three-year Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik Party under Vladimir Lenin dominated the soviet forces, a coalition of workers' and soldiers' committees that called for the establishment of a socialist state in the former Russian Empire. In the USSR, all levels of government were controlled by the Communist Party, and the party's politburo, with its increasingly powerful general secretary, effectively ruled the country. Soviet industry was owned and managed by the state, and agricultural land was divided into state-run collective farms.
In the decades after it was established, the Russian-dominated Soviet Union grew into one of the world's most powerful and influential states and eventually encompassed 15 republics--Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved following the collapse of its communist government.
Subject: December 31, 1999: Panama Canal turned over to Panama
On this day in 1999, the United States, in accordance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, officially hands over control of the Panama Canal, putting the strategic waterway into Panamanian hands for the first time. Crowds of Panamanians celebrated the transfer of the 50-mile canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and officially opened when the SS Arcon sailed through on August 15, 1914. Since then, over 922,000 ships have used the canal.
Interest in finding a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific originated with explorers in Central America in the early 1500s. In 1523, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V commissioned a survey of the Isthmus of Panama and several plans for a canal were produced, but none ever implemented. U.S. interest in building a canal was sparked with the expansion of the American West and the California gold rush in 1848. (Today, a ship heading from New York to San Francisco can save about 7,800 miles by taking the Panama Canal rather than sailing around South America.)
In 1880 a French company run by the builder of the Suez Canal started digging a canal across the Isthmus of Panama (then a part of Colombia). More than 22,000 workers died from tropical diseases such as yellow fever during this early phase of construction and the company eventually went bankrupt, selling its project rights to the United States in 1902 for $40 million. President Theodore Roosevelt championed the canal, viewing it as important to America's economic and military interests. In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia in a U.S.-backed revolution and the U.S. and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, in which the U.S. agreed to pay Panama $10 million for a perpetual lease on land for the canal, plus $250,000 annually in rent.
Over 56,000 people worked on the canal between 1904 and 1913 and over 5,600 lost their lives. When finished, the canal, which cost the U.S. $375 million to build, was considered a great engineering marvel and represented America's emergence as a world power.
In 1977, responding to nearly 20 years of Panamanian protest, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama's General Omar Torrijos signed two new treaties that replaced the original 1903 agreement and called for a transfer of canal control in 1999. The treaty, narrowly ratified by the U.S. Senate, gave America the ongoing right to defend the canal against any threats to its neutrality. In October 2006, Panamanian voters approved a $5.25 billion plan to double the canal's size by 2015 to better accommodate modern ships.
Ships pay tolls to use the canal, based on each vessel's size and cargo volume. In May 2006, the Maersk Dellys paid a record toll of $249,165. The smallest-ever toll--36 cents--was paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928.
Subject: January 1, 1959: Batista forced out by Castro-led revolution
On this day in 1959, facing a popular revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista flees the island nation. Amid celebration and chaos in the Cuban capitol of Havana, the U.S. debated how best to deal with the radical Castro and the ominous rumblings of anti-Americanism in Cuba.
The U.S. government had supported Batista, a former soldier and Cuban dictator from 1933 to 1944, who seized power for a second time in a 1952 coup. After Castro and a group of followers, including the South American revolutionary Che Guevara (1928-1967), landed in Cuba to unseat the dictator in December 1956, the U.S. continued to back Batista. Suspicious of what they believed to be Castro's leftist ideology and worried that his ultimate goals might include attacks on the U.S.'s significant investments and property in Cuba, American officials were nearly unanimous in opposing his revolutionary movement.
Cuban support for Castro's revolution, however, grew in the late 1950s, partially due to his charisma and nationalistic rhetoric, but also because of increasingly rampant corruption, greed, brutality and inefficiency within the Batista government. This reality forced the U.S. to slowly withdraw its support from Batista and begin a search in Cuba for an alternative to both the dictator and Castro; these efforts failed.
On January 1, 1959, Batista and a number of his supporters fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of Cubans (and thousands of Cuban Americans in the U.S.) celebrated the end of the dictator's regime. Castro's supporters moved quickly to establish their power. Judge Manuel Urrutia was named as provisional president. Castro and his band of guerrilla fighters triumphantly entered Havana on January 7.
The U.S. attitude toward the new revolutionary government soon changed from cautiously suspicious to downright hostile. After Castro nationalized American-owned property, allied himself with the Communist Party and grew friendlier with the Soviet Union, America's Cold War enemy, the U.S severed diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba and enacted a trade and travel embargo that remains in effect today. In April 1961, the U.S. launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, an unsuccessful attempt to remove Castro from power. Subsequent covert operations to overthrow Castro, born August 13, 1926, failed and he went on to become one of the world's longest-ruling heads of state. Fulgencio Batista died in Spain at age 72 on August 6, 1973. In late July 2006, an unwell Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul. Fidel Castro officially stepped down in February 2008.
Subject: January 2, 1980: U.S.-Russia detente ends
On this day in 1980, in a strong reaction to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter asks the Senate to postpone action on the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty and recalls the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. These actions sent a message that the age of detente and the friendlier diplomatic and economic relations that were established between the United States and Soviet Union during President Richard Nixon's administration (1969-74) had ended.
Carter feared that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which an estimated 30,000 combat troops entered that nation and established a puppet government, would threaten the stability of strategic neighboring countries such as Iran and Pakistan and could lead to the USSR gaining control over much of the world's oil supplies. The Soviet actions were labeled "a serious threat to peace" by the White House. Carter asked the Senate to shelve ratification talks on SALT II, the nuclear arms treaty that he and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had already signed, and the president called U.S. ambassador to Moscow Thomas J. Watson back to Washington for "consultation," in an effort to let the Kremlin know that military intervention in Afghanistan was unacceptable.
When the Soviets refused to withdraw from Afghanistan, America halted certain key exports to the USSR, including grain and high technology, and boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow. The United States also began to covertly subsidize anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. During Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, the CIA secretly sent billions of dollars to Afghanistan to arm and train the mujahedeen rebel forces that were battling the Soviets. This tactic was successful in helping to drive out the Soviets, but it also gave rise to the oppressive Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, who favored a more aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. Reagan dubbed the USSR the "evil empire" and believed it was America's responsibility to save the world from Soviet repression. He dramatically increased U.S. defense spending and ramped up the nuclear arms race with the Soviets, whose faltering economy ultimately prevented them from keeping pace. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Subject: January 3, 1990: Noriega surrenders to U.S.
On this day in 1990, Panama's General Manuel Antonio Noriega, after holing up for 10 days at the Vatican embassy in Panama City, surrenders to U.S. military troops to face charges of drug trafficking. Noriega was flown to Miami the following day and crowds of citizens on the streets of Panama City rejoiced. On July 10, 1992, the former dictator was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Noriega, who was born in Panama in 1938, was a loyal soldier to General Omar Torrijos, who seized power in a 1968 coup. Under Torrijos, Noriega headed up the notorious G-2 intelligence service, which harassed and terrorized people who criticized the Torrijos regime. Noriega also became a C.I.A. operative, while at the same time getting rich smuggling drugs.
In 1981, Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash and after a two-year power struggle, Noriega emerged as general of Panama's military forces. He became the country's de facto leader, fixing presidential elections so he could install his own puppet officials. Noriega's rule was marked by corruption and violence. He also became a double agent, selling American intelligence secrets to Cuba and Eastern European governments. In 1987, when Panamanians organized protests against Noriega and demanded his ouster, he declared a national emergency, shut down radio stations and newspapers and forced his political enemies into exile.
That year the United States cut off aid to Panama and tried to get Noriega to resign; in 1988, the U.S. began considering the use of military action to put an end to his drug trafficking. Noriega voided the May 1989 presidential election, which included a U.S.-backed candidate, and in December of that year he declared his country to be in a state of war with the United States. Shortly afterward, an American marine was killed by Panamanian soldiers. President George H.W. Bush authorized "Operation Just Cause," and on December 20, 1989, 13,000 U.S. troops were sent to occupy Panama City, along with the 12,000 already there, and seize Noriega. During the invasion, 23 U.S. troops were killed in action and over 300 were wounded. Approximately 450 Panamanian troops were killed; estimates for the number of civilians who died range from several hundred to several thousand, with thousands injured.
Today, Noriega, derogatorily nicknamed "Pineapple Face" in reference to his pockmarked skin, is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Miami.
Subject: January 4, 1999: The euro debuts
On this day in 1999, for the first time since Charlemagne's reign in the ninth century, Europe is united with a common currency when the "euro" debuts as a financial unit in corporate and investment markets. Eleven European Union (EU) nations (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain), representing some 290 million people, launched the currency in the hopes of increasing European integration and economic growth. Closing at a robust 1.17 U.S. dollars on its first day, the euro promised to give the dollar a run for its money in the new global economy. Euro cash, decorated with architectural images, symbols of European unity and member-state motifs, went into circulation on January 1, 2002, replacing the Austrian schilling, Belgian franc, Finnish markka, French franc, German mark, Italian lira, Irish punt, Luxembourg franc, Netherlands guilder, Portugal escudo and Spanish peseta. A number of territories and non-EU nations including Monaco and Vatican City also adopted the euro.
Conversion to the euro wasn't without controversy. Despite the practical benefits of a common currency that would make it easier to do business and travel throughout Europe, there were concerns that the changeover process would be costly and chaotic, encourage counterfeiting, lead to inflation and cause individual nations to loose control over their economic policies. Great Britain, Sweden and Demark opted not to use the euro. Greece, after initially being excluded for failing to meet all the required conditions, adopted the euro in January 2001, becoming the 12th member of the so-called eurozone.
The euro was established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European Union, which spelled out specific economic requirements, including high degree of price stability and low inflation, which countries must meet before they can begin using the new money. The euro consists of 8 coins and 7 paper bills. The Frankfurt-based European Central Bank (ECB) manages the euro and sets interest rates and other monetary policies. In 2004, 10 more countries joined the EU—-Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Several of these countries plan to start using the euro in 2007, with the rest to follow in coming years.
Subject: January 5, 1933: Golden Gate Bridge is born
On January 5, 1933, construction begins on the Golden Gate Bridge, as workers began excavating 3.25 million cubic feet of dirt for the structure’s huge anchorages.
Following the Gold Rush boom that began in 1849, speculators realized the land north of San Francisco Bay would increase in value in direct proportion to its accessibility to the city. Soon, a plan was hatched to build a bridge that would span the Golden Gate, a narrow, 400-foot deep strait that serves as the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, connecting the San Francisco Peninsula with the southern end of Marin County.
Although the idea went back as far as 1869, the proposal took root in 1916. A former engineering student, James Wilkins, working as a journalist with the San Francisco Bulletin, called for a suspension bridge with a center span of 3,000 feet, nearly twice the length of any in existence. Wilkins’ idea was estimated to cost an astounding $100 million. So, San Francisco's city engineer, Michael M. O'Shaughnessy (he’s also credited with coming up with the name Golden Gate Bridge), began asking bridge engineers whether they could do it for less.
Engineer and poet Joseph Strauss, a 5-foot tall Cincinnati-born Chicagoan, said he could.
Eventually, O'Shaughnessy and Strauss concluded they could build a pure suspension bridge within a practical range of $25-30 million with a main span at least 4,000 feet. The construction plan still faced opposition, including litigation, from many sources. By the time most of the obstacles were cleared, the Great Depression of 1929 had begun, limiting financing options, so officials convinced voters to support $35 million in bonded indebtedness, citing the jobs that would be created for the project. However, the bonds couldn’t be sold until 1932, when San-Francisco based Bank of America agreed to buy the entire project in order to help the local economy.
The Golden Gate Bridge officially opened on May 27, 1937, the longest bridge span in the world at the time. The first public crossing had taken place the day before, when 200,000 people walked, ran and even roller skated over the new bridge.
With its tall towers and famous red paint job, the bridge quickly became a famous American landmark, and a symbol of San Francisco.
Subject: January 6, 1838: Morse demonstrates telegraph
On this day in 1838, Samuel Morse's telegraph system is demonstrated for the first time at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey. The telegraph, a device which used electric impulses to transmit encoded messages over a wire, would eventually revolutionize long-distance communication, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He attended Yale University, where he was interested in art, as well as electricity, still in its infancy at the time. After college, Morse became a painter. In 1832, while sailing home from Europe, he heard about the newly discovered electromagnet and came up with an idea for an electric telegraph. He had no idea that other inventors were already at work on the concept.
Morse spent the next several years developing a prototype and took on two partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, to help him. In 1838, he demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers. In 1843, Morse finally convinced a skeptical Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. In May 1844, Morse sent the first official telegram over the line, with the message: "What hath God wrought!"
Over the next few years, private companies, using Morse's patent, set up telegraph lines around the Northeast. In 1851, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was founded; it would later change its name to Western Union. In 1861, Western Union finished the first transcontinental line across the United States. Five years later, the first successful permanent line across the Atlantic Ocean was constructed and by the end of the century telegraph systems were in place in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Because telegraph companies typically charged by the word, telegrams became known for their succinct prose--whether they contained happy or sad news. The word "stop," which was free, was used in place of a period, for which there was a charge. In 1933, Western Union introduced singing telegrams. During World War II, Americans came to dread the sight of Western Union couriers because the military used telegrams to inform families about soldiers' deaths.
Over the course of the 20th century, telegraph messages were largely replaced by cheap long-distance phone service, faxes and email. Western Union delivered its final telegram in January 2006.
Samuel Morse died wealthy and famous in New York City on April 2, 1872, at age 80.
Subject: January 7, 1789: First U.S. presidential election
On this day in 1789, America's first presidential election is held. Voters cast ballots to choose state electors; only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. As expected, George Washington won the election and was sworn into office on April 30, 1789.
As it did in 1789, the United States still uses the Electoral College system, established by the U.S. Constitution, which today gives all American citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president. The president and vice president are the only elected federal officials chosen by the Electoral College instead of by direct popular vote.
Today political parties usually nominate their slate of electors at their state conventions or by a vote of the party's central state committee, with party loyalists often being picked for the job. Members of the U.S. Congress, though, can’t be electors. Each state is allowed to choose as many electors as it has senators and representatives in Congress. The District of Columbia has 3 electors. During a presidential election year, on Election Day (the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November), the electors from the party that gets the most popular votes are elected in a winner-take-all-system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electors proportionally. In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs a majority of 270 electoral votes out of a possible 538.
On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of a presidential election year, each state's electors meet, usually in their state capitol, and simultaneously cast their ballots nationwide. This is largely ceremonial: Because electors nearly always vote with their party, presidential elections are essentially decided on Election Day. Although electors aren't constitutionally mandated to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state, it is demanded by tradition and required by law in 26 states and the District of Columbia (in some states, violating this rule is punishable by $1,000 fine). Historically, over 99 percent of all electors have cast their ballots in line with the voters. On January 6, as a formality, the electoral votes are counted before Congress and on January 20, the commander in chief is sworn into office.
Critics of the Electoral College argue that the winner-take-all system makes it possible for a candidate to be elected president even if he gets fewer popular votes than his opponent. This happened in the elections of 1876, 1888 and 2000. However, supporters contend that if the Electoral College were done away with, heavily populated states such as California and Texas might decide every election and issues important to voters in smaller states would be ignored.
Subject: January 8, 1877: Crazy Horse fights last battle
On this day in 1877, Crazy Horse and his warriors--outnumbered, low on ammunition and forced to use outdated weapons to defend themselves--fight their final losing battle against the U.S. Cavalry in Montana.
Six months earlier, in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and his ally, Chief Sitting Bull, led their combined forces of Sioux and Cheyenne to a stunning victory over Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (1839-76) and his men. The Indians were resisting the U.S. government's efforts to force them back to their reservations. After Custer and over 200 of his soldiers were killed in the conflict, later dubbed "Custer's Last Stand," the American public wanted revenge. As a result, the U.S. Army launched a winter campaign in 1876-77, led by General Nelson Miles (1839-1925), against the remaining hostile Indians on the Northern Plains.
Combining military force with diplomatic overtures, Nelson convinced many Indians to surrender and return to their reservations. Much to Nelson's frustration, though, Sitting Bull refused to give in and fled across the border to Canada, where he and his people remained for four years before finally returning to the U.S. to surrender in 1881. Sitting Bull died in 1890. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse and his band also refused to surrender, even though they were suffering from illness and starvation.
On January 8, 1877, General Miles found Crazy Horse's camp along Montana's Tongue River. U.S. soldiers opened fire with their big wagon-mounted guns, driving the Indians from their warm tents out into a raging blizzard. Crazy Horse and his warriors managed to regroup on a ridge and return fire, but most of their ammunition was gone, and they were reduced to fighting with bows and arrows. They managed to hold off the soldiers long enough for the women and children to escape under cover of the blinding blizzard before they turned to follow them.
Though he had escaped decisive defeat, Crazy Horse realized that Miles and his well-equipped cavalry troops would eventually hunt down and destroy his cold, hungry followers. On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse led approximately 1,100 Indians to the Red Cloud reservation near Nebraska's Fort Robinson and surrendered. Five months later, a guard fatally stabbed him after he allegedly resisted imprisonment by Indian policemen.
In 1948, American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on the Crazy Horse Memorial, a massive monument carved into a mountain in South Dakota. Still a work in progress, the monument will stand 641 feet high and 563 feet long when completed.
Subject: January 9, 1493: Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids
On this day in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three "mermaids"--in reality manatees--and describes them as "not half as beautiful as they are painted." Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or "New World."
Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically depicted as having a woman's head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.
Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren't made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller's sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they're typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They're plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.
Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boats.