August 26, 1957 – The Soviet Union Announces Its First Successful Launch of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

On this day in history, Tass, the official Soviet news agency of the USSR, announced that the U.S.S.R. had successfully launched a “super long distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket (ICBM).” Then, on October 4, the Soviets used the ICBM to blast into orbit the first artificial Earth satellite, a bundle of instruments weighing about 184 pounds called Sputnik, a combination of words meaning “fellow-traveler of the Earth.”

Sputnik 1 is launched aboard an ICBM from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan close to the Aral Sea on Oct. 4, 1957. Photo courtesy of Novosti

Sputnik 1 is launched aboard an ICBM from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan close to the Aral Sea on Oct. 4, 1957. Photo courtesy of Novosti

Sputnik was followed a month later with Sputnik II, weighing some 1120 pounds and carrying a dog named Laika.

Russia's Laika, the first dog in space

Russia’s Laika, the first dog in space

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who was at his ranch in Texas the night of October 4 when he heard the news about Sputnik, called for a full inquiry into the state of national defense, opining that “[s]oon [the Russians] will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” He wasn’t the only one whipping up public fear and paranoia for partisan advantage.

But Eisenhower had important national security reasons for keeping satellite and military information secret, and did not defend his Administration as vigorously as he could have. In 1960, as “The Atlantic Magazine” reported, Kennedy campaigned hard against the Republican “negligence” that had allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the United States in producing missiles. Once in office, however, he learned that there was no missile gap—which gave him an opening to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength.

Summit Meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy in Vienna in June, 1961

Summit Meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy in Vienna in June, 1961

August 24, 1939 – Great Britain Passes the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939 Enabling “Enemy” Internment

On this day in history, the British Parliament enacted legislation granting the government special powers pursuant to the growing threat of war in Europe. The Act was passed in reaction to the Nazi-Soviet Pact the day previously. The House of Commons was recalled from its summer recess to pass this act, which gave authority to implement the Defence Regulations that had existed in draft form after the first world war.

Russian foreign minister Molotov signs Nazi-Soviet Pact in front of his German counterpart Ribbentrop, center, and dictator Stalin in 1939

Russian foreign minister Molotov signs Nazi-Soviet Pact in front of his German counterpart Ribbentrop, center, and dictator Stalin in 1939

Defence Regulation 18B, often referred to as simply 18B, was part of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939 and allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. The effect of 18B was to suspend the right of affected individuals to habeas corpus for the first time since the Magna Carta was adopted in 1215.

Most of the British citizens detained were members of Fascist or extreme Right-wing groups, who were generally opposed to the war with Germany. But the majority of detainees were not British citizens, but technically enemy aliens. The fact was however that many of these people were refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany.

In 1940, the Act was extended in reaction to several events: the rapid seizure of power in Norway by Germany, the fall of the Low Countries, the invasion of France, and the discovery that a clerk at the U.S. Embassy had stolen thousands of telegrams, including highly confidential correspondence between Churchill to FDR.

More and more Germans and Austrians were rounded up. Italians were also included, even though Britain was not at war with Italy until June, 1940. When Italy and Britain did go to war, there were at least 19,000 Italians in Britain, and Churchill ordered they all be rounded up. This was despite the fact that most of them had lived in Britain for decades.

British internment camp

British internment camp

After Italy’s Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10, 1940, angry anti-Italian riots broke out in many British cities. Terrified shop owners, many with British citizenship and having been resident in the British Isles (often for decades), were forced to barricade themselves into back rooms. The worst riots were in Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, all with large pre-war Italian populations. In places the police were forced to charge the rampaging mobs with batons.

The worse violence occurred in Scotland with major riots in Glasgow, Clydebank and Edinburgh. Many of the rioters were young men from areas of high youth unemployment. It was thought that they used Italy’s declaration of war as an excuse to vent their xenophobia, frustration at unemployment, and anti-Catholicism. Many of their victims were not only British citizens, but had sons serving in the armed forces.

But on June 11 Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced to the country that all Italians males between the ages of seventeen and seventy who had not been resident in Britain for more than twenty years, plus all those, male and female, on the MI5 suspects list would be subject to internment.

Tatura Internment Camp, Victoria, Australia

Tatura Internment Camp, Victoria, Australia

Thousands of internees were sent to camps set up at racecourses and incomplete housing estates. The majority were interned on the Isle of Man, where internment camps had been set up in World War One.

Even though many of the ‘enemy aliens’ were Jewish refugees and hardly likely to be sympathetic to the Nazis, they were still treated as German and Austrian nationals. In one Isle of Man camp over 80 per cent of the internees were Jewish refugees. More than 7,000 internees were deported, the majority to Canada, some to Australia.


The liner Arandora Star left for Canada July 1, 1940. Designed to carry 500 passengers, Arandora Star was carrying 1,300 internees. It was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 714 lives, including many Italian British citizens and Jewish refugees. A week later, 2,542 men were taken to Australia on the Dunera. Internees were subjected to anti-Semitism, humiliating treatment and intentionally abysmal conditions on the two-month voyage. Many had their possessions destroyed by the British military guards. The Dunera was labeled a “hell-ship.”

A subsequent outcry in Parliament led to the first releases of internees in August 1940. By February 1941 more than 10,000 had been freed, and by the following summer, only 5,000 were left in internment camps. Many of those released from internment subsequently contributed to the war effort on the Home Front or served in the armed forces.

Review of “Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction” by Eric Foner

Eric Foner begins this excellent short elaboration of his earlier book (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) with the observation that, in spite of the biblical proportions of the transformation of four million slaves from bondage to citizenship, “this critical moment in our nation’s history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding.” Because of this omission, he charges, problems with race remain that have never been fully addressed.


Foner charges that the legacy of the Civil War developed into “a fascination with the valor of combat,” a war of “noble tragedy pitting brother against brother.” Black Americans are relegated to a minor role. This characterization dominates the history, memorialization and discussion of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Largely obliterated is the service of some 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy; the vast exodus of southern slaves to northern lines as the Union came through; the excitement over freedom by African Americans; their desire to work, own land, engage in civic activities, vote, and above all, to get educated; and the violent suppression of those aspirations.

Most school children come to understand Reconstruction as a period of scalawags, carpetbaggers, and ignorant, easily-manipulated freed blacks. It was widely believed that blacks were lazy and would not work, and prone to committing crimes. But the truth is much more complex. Freed slaves were denied their own land as they had been promised (“40 acres and a mule”) and were forced to sign punitive contracts that obligated them and their families to work from sun-up to sunset for whites who might or might not pay them. Only after this labor could they work their own little plot of land to feed their families. Naturally they had more interest in working on the latter than the former. Black men also did not want their women working in white houses, given the history of white sexual exploitation of black women. These attitudes on the part of blacks were translated for public consumption as “lazy.”

Additionally, laws were enacted in the South such as Mississippi’s infamous “pig law” defining the theft of a farm animal as grand larceny. Black men once free soon found themselves imprisoned for minor offenses – often the hapless victims of false accusations – and on chain gangs. Thus with such techniques did whites manage to return the South to a system of cheap, forced labor done by disempowered blacks.

And still, with all that, blacks tried to make better lives for themselves, to run for office, to protest conditions, and improve their education. There was one final recourse for Southerners, and that was violence. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866, and other ad hoc groups, did not even feel the need for disguises when they began their reign of terror. In the first half of 1871, the KKK destroyed 26 schools in one county in Mississippi alone. There were some three thousand victims of lynchings carried out between 1882 and 1930, 88 percent of which were African American men, most of whom charged with offenses such as self-defense, effrontery, or sexual offenses against white women (generally found to be false or so harmless as to be ludicrous). Others who were lynched included white shopkeepers or schoolteachers thought to be treating Negroes “fairly” or speaking up for their civil rights.

Harper's Weekly, 1872

Harper's Weekly, 1872

Foner stresses that the North was complicitous in these crimes: “they could not have taken place “without the full acquiescence of the North.” Labor unrest by immigrants in the North made Northerners nervous about setting a “bad precedent” by giving more rights to black workers. Moreover, by the late 1800s, racism was acquiring the “scientific” imprimatur of social Darwinism, phrenology, and other dubious, later-discredited disciplines. Political compromises sealed the South’s fate. (Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner of a disputed election in 1876 after agreeing to restore full local autonomy to the South.)

“Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free reign to exercise police powers over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age.


These practices helped structure the commemorative patterns that came to inform the dominant narratives of our history, and which thus kept alive the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction. Combined with pictures, statuary, and movies, Southerners have been determinative in structuring a mix of affect and information that reinforces the view they chose to promulgate of the Civil War and its aftermath. These images and narrative constructs in turn legitimated discriminatory political policies and practices. That blacks have had so many fewer opportunities to accumulate wealth and property over the generations, that they have suffered generations of economic disempowerment and educational disadvantage, that their family structures continue to be assaulted by disparate imprisonment standards, are conveniently forgotten. Rather, the popular narrative of self-responsibility and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps dominates the discussion of the persistent disparities between black and white.

Foner bemoans the fact that “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, what is remarkable is both how much America’s racial situation has changed, and how much it remains the same.” For example, school segregation is once again on the rise, now because of housing patterns and the divide between urban and suburban school districts rather than laws. The black prison population is eight times higher than that for whites, in part because of sentencing disparities that favor white patterns of drug use over black. And as Foner explains, twenty-nine states deny the right to vote to those on probation and those who have ever served in prison for a felony, disenfranchising an estimated one-seventh of the black male population.


Foner implores us to reexamine Reconstruction and its effects, to help challenge the dominant narratives that successfully keep traditionally oppressed groups from receiving equal opportunity. He asks us to cease effacing the stories of black achievement during Reconstruction, and to recognize the ideological components of memory. Only then can we make good on the promises that were made to blacks so long ago that they too could be part of the American dream.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Knopf, 2005

August 20, 1964 – President Johnson Signs the Equal Opportunity Act Into Law

On this day in history, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act, U.S. Public Law 88-452 (78 STAT 508). The bill approved $1 billion for social programs to combat poverty.

In his Annual Message to Congress in January of that year, the President had declared a War on Poverty, stating:

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope–some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

President Johnson gave Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of recently assassinated President Kennedy, the task of developing a bill to wage the war against poverty in the United States.

In the Senate, the bill was debated for two days and then passed on July 23, 1964, with 61 Senators in favor, 34 opposed. In the House, the Senate-passed bill was debated for four days and passed by a vote of 226 to 185, on August 8, 1964. The debate and voting in both the House and Senate was highly partisan with Republicans questioning states’ rights and southern Democrats the racial integration provisions. The Senate adopted the House-passed bill that same day and twelve days later the bill was signed by President Johnson.


The Act established eleven major programs, including The Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The legislation also authorized the Economic Opportunity Council, which led to the launch of smaller independent groups that worked with communities to establish better economic climates.

Upon signing the bill, President Johnson said:

In helping others, all of us will really be helping ourselves. For this bill will permit us to give our young people an opportunity to work here at home in constructive ways as volunteers, going to war against poverty instead of going to war against foreign enemies.”

Subsequent legislation expanded the role of the EEOC. Today, according to the EEOC website:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”

August 18, 1943 – Photo-Op At The Quebec Conference

From August 17 to 24, 1943, British, Canadian, and American leaders met in Quebec to discuss future military strategy. Several things were accomplished at the conference, which was code-named Quadrant.

Winston Churchill,  and Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King stand behind U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Canada’s Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone, during the first Quebec Conference on Aug. 18, 1943

Winston Churchill, and Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King stand behind U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Canada’s Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone, during the first Quebec Conference on Aug. 18, 1943

The allies agreed to begin discussions for the planning of an invasion of France the following May, codenamed Overlord. (“D-Day” did not actually take place until June 6, 1944.)

They also discussed increasing the bombing offensive against Germany and continuing the buildup of American forces in Britain prior to an invasion of France.

Perhaps the most important agreement was that the United Kingdom and the U.S. agreed that neither would use a nuclear weapon – now in rapid development – or communicate nuclear intelligence to a third party without mutual consent.

You can read the agreement regarding nuclear weapons (“tube alloys”) here.

Allied Conference Sites During World War II

Allied Conference Sites During World War II

August 16, 1921 – Huge KKK Rally in Chicago

On this day in history, an estimated 12,000 men participated in a Ku Klux Klan initiation rite that began in downtown Chicago and ended in the suburb of Lake Zurich.

Chicago was a fecund recruiting ground for the Klan, which had expanded its agenda of hatred to include immigrants, Catholics and Jews. The Klan’s national leader (called The Imperial Wizard), William Simmons, told the Chicago Tribune, “our membership is limited to native born American gentiles.”

Gathering of Klansmen on August 16, 1921 for an initiation ceremony on a farm near Lake Zurich, IL outside of Chicago  (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

Gathering of Klansmen on August 16, 1921 for an initiation ceremony on a farm near Lake Zurich, IL outside of Chicago (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

At the ritual site in Lake Zurich, a huge bonfire was lit, and each member, holding a torch, took a position in the form of a blazing cross. The bonfire and meeting was held on the farm of Charles Weeghman, a millionaire who owned the Chicago Cubs from 1916 to 1918. Business leaders were attracted to the Klan, the Tribune opined, because of its hostility to the union movement.

The next year, the Klan in Chicago initiated another 4,650 new members, welcomed by more than 25,000 supporters. By 1923, national membership was estimated to be 2.5 million.

The decline of the Klan in the 1930’s has been attributed to internecine squabbles among the leadership.

August 15, 1914 – Completion of the Panama Canal

On this day in history, a 48- mile waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Caribbean Sea was completed after many difficult years of development.

France began the work in 1881, but gave up because of engineering problems and a high mortality rate from disease. In 1904 the U.S. Senate approved a treaty which gave the U.S. authority to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and control a 10-mile-wide canal zone. It took ten years for the U.S. to complete the canal.

President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel at the Panama Canal, 1906

President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel at the Panama Canal, 1906

The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until a series of riots by Panamanians protesting U.S. control in 1964 created pressure on the U.S. to renegotiate the original treaty. In September 1977 President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera signed two new treaties.

The treaties, named for signatories U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Commander of Panama’s National Guard, General Omar Torrijos, are the “Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal” and “The Panama Canal Treaty.”

The first treaty stated that the United States could use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality, thus allowing perpetual U.S. usage of the Canal. The second treaty stated that the Panama Canal Zone would cease to exist on October 1, 1979, and the Canal itself would be turned over to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. These two treaties were signed on September 7, 1977.

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos at the September 7th signing ceremony. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos at the September 7th signing ceremony. (Jimmy Carter Library)

The canal is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency. In 2007, the Panamanian government launched a $5.25 billion, seven-year project to update and improve the canal. But there have been problems with the construction, and competition from unexpected areas. You can read more about these developments here.

A schematic of the Panama Canal, illustrating the sequence of locks and passages

A schematic of the Panama Canal, illustrating the sequence of locks and passages


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