Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Past to present to posterity

In last Thursday’s post I gnashed my teeth over the fact that U.S. citizens celebrate Cinco de Mayo when it has nothing to do with the U.S. And over the fact that those same people believe it’s a Mexican holiday when, in reality, it is observed in only one of Mexico’s thirty-one states. I suggested that if Americans want an excuse to imbibe on May 5th, they should say they are celebrating the anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space.

That bit of kvetching has gotten me thinking about the deplorable state of our schools when it comes to teaching American history.

To be sure, it is bars and beer distributors, not teachers and principals, who are responsible for most of the hype surrounding Cinco de Mayo. But the education establishment is responsible for the fact that most Americans are more likely to know Mexico’s military once won a battle on May 5th than they are to know who Alan Shepard even was -- much less that May 5th was the day of his seminal achievement.

In President Reagan’s farewell address he said: “So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important…If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of that -- of the American memory -- that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

As is often the case, I agree with the Gipper, but in this lone blogpost there is neither the time nor space needed to recount the grand sweep of American history. Still, I figured this is as good a place as any to mention some of the major events that rarely get discussed these days, much less commemorated. So here they are:

January 1st: In 1914, the world’s first commercial airline flight took place when Tony Jannus piloted a Benoist XIV biplane from St. Petersburg, Florida (my home town!) to Tampa, Florida.

January 16th: In 1938, members of Benny Goodman’s band performed onstage at Carnegie Hall with members of Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. It was the first time that elite white musicians and elite black musicians played together in such a high profile, public venue, and a recording of the concert became the first double album in world history.

March 23rd: In 1983, President Reagan went on TV and announced the Strategic Defense Initiative: a far-sighted plan to use ground- and space-based systems to defend the U.S. by identifying enemy missiles and shooting them down before they could reach U.S. soil. Although the initiative was lampooned as a fantasy by critics who referred to it as “Star Wars,” ex-Soviet officials have confirmed that it played a key role in the downfall of Soviet Communism.

April 9th: In 1865, the Civil War ended when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

April 18th: In 1775, under cover of night, Paul Revere left Boston on horseback to warn Massachusetts colonists that British forces were invading the countryside.

May 8th: The Nazis surrendered on this day in 1945, brining World War II to an end in Europe. For years afterward it was universally known as V-E Day (for “Victory in Europe”) but now that phrase is rarely if ever heard.

May 10th: Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, with the hammering of “the last spike” at Promontory Summit in what would later become the state of Utah. The track connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time in history

June 3rd: Ed White (who graduated from the same high school as me!) became the first American to walk in space on this date in 1965.

June 6th: In 1944, U.S. and Allied forces stormed French beaches in the invasion known as D-Day. Commencing a sustained and ultimately successful attack against the occupying Nazi military, D-Day hastened the end of World War II in Europe.

June 7th: In 1942, precisely six months after Pearl Harbor, U.S. naval forces thoroughly defeated Japanese naval forces in the Battle of Midway. Referred to by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” Midway proved to be a key turning point in World War II from both a tactical and psychological perspective.

June 12th: Speaking at the Brandenbeurg Gate in 1987, President Reagan exhorted Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” 29 months later the Berlin Wall did fall when East Germany’s government succumbed to pressure and opened its gates.

June 26th: On the second day of fighting in 1876, the U.S. 7th Cavalry, commanded by General George Armstrong Custer, was completely wiped out by combined forces from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indian tribes in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Not a single U.S. soldier survived in what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

July 21st: In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

August 7th: In 1998, 223 people were killed when terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden simultaneously bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Before that, bin Laden was almost unknown to the American public.

August 15th: Japan surrendered on this date in 1945, bringing all World War II hostilities to an end in what for years afterward was known as V-J Day “for Victory in Japan.” As with V-E Day (see above) the importance of the date has ceased to be noted on calendars.

September 3rd: The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War and officially ensuring the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain.

September 17th: The Battle of Antietam took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland in 1862. That Civil War confrontation caused more casualties (22,717) than any other in U.S. history.

September 23rd: In 1955, nine black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” entered previously segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racist violence ensued, and on the following day President Eisenhower deployed military forces to escort the students onto school grounds and ensure their safety. This proved to be a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

September 30th: In 1935, with most of the construction already completed, Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam) was ceremoniously dedicated by FDR. It paved the way for prosperity in the Southwest by providing Arizona, Nevada and California with massive amounts of hydroelectricity as well as irrigation water for farms and municipalities.

October 14th: On this date in 1947, piloting an experimental plane, and in pain from two broken ribs that he kept secret for fear of being taken off the project, Chuck Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.

October 19th: Following the Battle of Yorktown, British forces led by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American forces led by George Washington in 1781. This helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War in favor of the American colonists.

December 1st: Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger: an act of rightful defiance which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and became a rallying point in the Civil Rights Movement.

December 7th: In 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, seriously crippling the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet and officially drawing the United States into World War II.

December 17th: In 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the world’s first controlled, powered airplane flight at Kill Devil Hills, close to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Of course there are many other significant dates. And they connect all American generations to each other in a shared striving for freedom and excellence. Let us see to it that our story story is never forgotten and our circle is never broken.

1 comment:

Fred Alton said...

Excellent Post, John! I remember my studies in American History did not go so well in High School. Of course the main culprit was me and my determination to "have fun" and not take any books home to study after school. Finally, after two years of failing the course, I was put into a class taught by Mr. Stanley Butler (now deceased) who made history come alive and exciting with his dynamic and personal presentation of the subject matter. After receiving a passing grade (I think it was a C) on the third attempt, and realizing that if you took three years of a subject it became a "major", I began to say that I had "majored" in American History. Hahahaahaha Til this day I am fascinated by those who seem able to take cold data off the pages of a book and make them live.