This Upcoming Week in US and World History: April 25 – May 1

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History is written by the victors. For centuries, before the age of the internet, governments and historians wrote their history. Today, as information flows from one side of the world to another in an instant, we now have access to world history, and learning from the past helps us to understand the present and plan for the future.

“America” First Appears on a Map – April 25, 1507 

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World map Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Ortelius (1570)-Image Source: Wikiwand

The lands “discovered” by Christopher Columbus are known collectively as the Americas. The name is derived not from his name, though, but from that of Amerigo Vespucci, a fellow Italian – Florentine to be exact.

Vespucci had been attached to the Medici banking family and sent to Spain to see if the local office of the Medici bank was being pilfered by the local managers. Vespucci eventually came to the notice of the King and Queen of Spain, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who backed the voyages of Columbus.

When they broke their exclusive contract with Columbus and started licensing numerous expeditions, Vespucci decided he wanted to sail the seas. He made several voyages to the New World, and he came to the conclusion that the land mass that is now South America was not the edge of Asia as many had thought.

When German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller made his map, he labeled the area Vespucci explored “America,” a feminization of Amerigo. The actual title of the map Waldseemuller made is “Universalis cosmographia secunda Ptholemei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorum que lustrationes” (“A drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others”). That map, printed on 12 separate sheets, each 18-by-24-inches, from woodblock plates, measured more than 4 feet by 8 feet in dimension when assembled.

When Mercator made his maps in 1538, he worked from Waldseemuller’s map from the generation before. However, he expanded the area covered by the term “America” to cover the northern as well as southern land mass.

I have often wondered what the course of human history would have looked like had the surname been used instead – Vespuccia. The United States of Vespuccia, the Organization of Vespuccian States, the Miss Vespuccia pageant. I don’t think it has quite the same punch – sort of like Rome being named for Romulus. Had Remus slain his brother, we might be studying Reman History.

First Britain to Subcontinent NonStop Flight Lands – April 26, 1929

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Image Source: Planet News Archive

I don’t care how you slice it. Even non-stop, flying from Britain to India or Pakistan is a damn long time to sit. I just checked the flight times this morning out of London’s airports to Karachi, and it takes around 8 hours to fly not quite 4,000 miles. You don’t have enough leg room (I wouldn’t know about first class), you can’t possibly read the entire time, and if you sleep, you wake up feeling like crap (I do anyway).

So imagine trading your Emirates 747 for a single-engine propeller driving Fairey Long-Range Monoplane. Flying time, 50 hours and 38 minutes from take off to landing. That’s what Squadron Leader Arthur Jones-Williams and his co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Norman Jenkins of the RAF did 1929. On April 24, 1929, they took off from the RAF base at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, which probably accounted for the 38 minutes, and landed at an airstrip in Karachi on April 26.

“With the full backing of the RAF, the two men were making an attempt on the world long distance record which was then held by two Italian flyers. Their intention was to fly to Bangalore, a destination that would have given them the record – had they been able to complete the journey.

“The flight went well and the two Welshmen were 100 miles past Karachi when they realized that they had only six hours fuel left, not nearly enough to reach Bangalore. Consequently, they decided to turn around and head back to Karachi which they reached on 27 April. They had covered a distance of 4,130 miles..”

The two tried again for the record the next year. Their flight plan was to go from Britain to South Africa. On December 17, 1930, their monoplane crashed into the Atlas Mountains in Tunisia killing them both.

Mossadeq becomes Premier of Persia – April 27, 1951

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Image Source: Wsj

If you want to understand Iran’s current hostility to the US and the UK, then you need to start with Mohammed Mossadeq. His father was Minister of Finance in Persia (the country’s name was changed in 1935) and his other a princess of the ruling Qajar dynasty. As a result, he entered politics at a young age, working as a reformer. He studied in Switzerland at Neuchatel becoming the first Iranian with a doctorate in law – returning to Iran a day before the start of the First World War.

When the Pahlavi dynasty took power in a British inspired coup d’etat, he becomes a life-long opponent of the monarchy. He was arrested by the police of Reza Shah, imprisoned and then put under house arrest in Ahmadabad. Only when the British replaced Reza Shah with his 22-year-old son, Mohammed Reza (the Shah who was toppled by the 1979 Revolution), was Mossadeq freed.

Western meddling had much to do with oil and with Iran’s location directly south of the Soviet Union. When Mossadeq become Prime Minister on this day in 1951, he began the process of nationalizing the oil fields of Iran. This clearly upset the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but his fierce defense of his nation’s interests got him named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951.

Eventually, the CIA and British intelligence engineered a coup against him. He was tried in a military court as a traitor, and not surprisingly was convicted. After three years of solitary confinement, he was placed under house arrest in 1956, dying in 1967.

The overthrow of the Mossadeq regime and the authoritarian regime the Shah imposed is one of the sore points in Iran’s relations with the west. While most Americans and Brits know nothing of the affair, the average Iranian in the street knows a great deal.

Aretha Franklin releases “Respect” – April 29, 1967

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Image Source: Stargayzing

I’ve heard this song sung in places where they don’t even speak English as a third language, but when it comes on, everyone can spell it: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It is the one song above all others that we associate with Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. But it wasn’t her song at first.

It was written by Otis “Dock of the Bay” Redding, who recorded it in 1965 on the Volt record label. Aretha recorded her version on Valentine’s Day 1967; Redding would die in December that same year. The difference in the two artists’ approaches was big. As Rolling Stone magazine explained it “In Redding’s reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.”

The line “Sock it to me” became a part of 1960s pop slang. President Nixon ever said it on the TV show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The record would be Aretha’s first number one record in the US, where it topped the charts for 12 weeks.

Rolling Stone ranks it fifth on its list of 500 greatest songs of all time. Such lists are silly but I really can’t argue that it is one of the finest piece of American music ever to be recorded. And if you are curious, the four that RS rated higher were: #4 Marvin Gaye’s “What’ Going On,” #3 John Lennon’s “Imagine” #2 Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction,” and #1 Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Saigon Falls – April 30, 1975

Americans and Vietnamese run for a U.S. Marine helicopter in Saigon during the evacuation of the city, April 29, 1975. (AP Photo)
Saigon evacuation-Image Source: On point

For Americans my age and older (I was born in 1961), the Vietnam War loomed largely. It was constant. Older brothers and cousins were being drafted and sent off to war. And it was one of the dumbest foreign policy moves I have ever lived through (the Iraq War of 2003 was the dumbest, and I said so at the time).

Vietnam was part of French Indochina, but when Germany conquered France in 1940, the pro-Nazi puppet regime in Vichy, France, ceded the territory to Imperial Japan. After the war, the French tried to reassert their control over the region, and an indigenous force called the Viet Minh fought back. When the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to the Viet Minh, that should have been the end of things – and independent Vietnam and the world goes about its business.

Instead, America was in a Cold War (which got hot in Korea), with world communism, and Vietnam had to be saved from the Reds. So, South Vietnam and North Vietnam were created, with the South being pro-West, and the North communist because that’s what the Viet Minh were. A referendum was to be held, but things got screwed up, and by 1969, there were 500,000 American troops fighting to keep the Saigon-based in power.

North Vietnam, the South and the US made peace in 1973. The US left, but both Hanoi and Saigon violated the peace accords. In 1975, North Vietnam launched its final offensive. They entered Saigon, renamed in Ho Chi Minh City (after the North’s leader), and ended the war by military conquest.

I remember watching film footage of the US Navy sending helicopters to get the last Americans out, and thousands of South Vietnamese tried to follow. Because there wasn’t room on the aircraft carriers in the South China Sea for all the helicopters, the choppers were emptied and pushed into the sea to make room for more. In the end, 1,300 Americans and 5,900 Vietnamese were evacuated. It felt like a huge defeat because that’s what it was.

After the fall of Saigon, thousands more Vietnamese got into boats and set sail, trying to find a way out. The “boat people” were the refugee problem of the 1970s, much as today’s Middle Eastern refugees are the problem of our day.

“The Vietnamese immigrant population in the United States has risen significantly, increasing from about 231,000 in 1980 to nearly 1.3 million in 2012, making it the sixth largest foreign-born population in the United States. This growth occurred most rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Vietnamese immigrant population roughly doubled within each decade. Although refugees comprised the first two waves of Vietnamese immigration, subsequent migration has mainly consisted of immigrants reunifying with relatives in the United States. As of 2012, Vietnamese immigrants comprised about 3 percent of the total foreign-born population, which stood at 40.8 million.”

I called the war among the dumbest. Some will disagree. The fear was that if we didn’t fight the communists there, we would have to fight them in the streets of America. (The same line, by the way, is being bandied about in the fight against jihadis). In fact, that isn’t what happened. Instead, we began trading with Vietnam a few years after the fall of Saigon. Over 50,000 Americans and a million or so Vietnamese died, and I have a nice Ralph Lauren tweed sportscoat with a label “Made in Vietnam.” Like I said, a dumb war.


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