Anniversaries mark the passage of time, recall our triumphs, and honor our losses. 2016 witnessed many significant historical anniversaries: the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, to name a few. 2017 will also see anniversaries of many significant events. Here are ten of note:
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Signing of the Maastricht Treaty, February 7, 1992
The European Union finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis these days. Economic growth is limping along, the British want out, and Euroskepticism is gaining ground. Perhaps the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty will help the EU regain its mojo. What the 12 members of the “European Economic Community” (EEC) committed themselves to a quarter century ago was remarkable. They weren’t content with having a common economic market. They wanted deeper economic, legal, and political integration. In advancing this “European Project,” Maastricht called for enhancing greater economic cooperation, developing a unified European foreign policy, and generating common judicial policies. The experiment with deeper integration worked—for a time. The EU grew to 28 member countries, created the euro, and had serious people talking about how Europe would run the 21st century. Then came the Great Recession. Seven years of tough economic times have exposed deep divisions across the continent about the European project. The EU’s fans say that its past stumbles have always led to more and deeper integration. Perhaps. But sometimes past performance is a poor indicator of future behavior.
Centennial of the Russian Revolutions, March 8-November 7, 1917
The Russian Revolution was actually two revolutions, one that gave hope to the dream that Russia might embrace liberal democracy and another that crushed it. The February Revolution began on March 8, 1917, when workers went on strike to protest food shortages in St. Petersburg. (Russia at the time used the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, which is why the revolution’s name doesn’t match the date we now give it.) The protests spread rapidly. Calls for “Bread!” quickly gave way to chants of “Down with the Autocracy!” On March 10, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne after the troops he sent to suppress the protests defected. The Russian Duma formed a provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky. But Kerensky’s government struggled. The applause that greeted its decision to abolish the Tsar’s hated secret police and press censorship did not offset the anger generated by its decision to continue fighting in World War I. The decision to allow Vladimir Lenin to return from exile in July gave opponents a leader.
On November 7, Lenin and his fellow “Bolsheviks” launched the October Revolution, overthrowing Kerensky’s government in a nearly bloodless coup d’état. Lenin made peace with Germany and began asserting control over the sprawling Russian empire. Anti-Bolshevik and pro-Tsarist forces fought back, but the “Red Army” defeated the “White Army” in a bloody four-year civil war. In 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially established. Historians were left to wonder what might have been.
One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of the Alaska Purchase, March 30, 1867
Yes, there once was a time when the U.S. Senate acted quickly. Case in point, the Alaska Purchase. In the early 1860s a cash-strapped Tsar Alexander II feared Russia might not be able to defend its claim to its distant colony in Alaska. So he decided to turn a lemon into lemonade by selling the territory to the United States. The American Civil War put the effort on hold, but talks resumed in 1867. In rapid fire negotiations that culminated in an all-night bargaining session on March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed to pay $7.2 million—or a little more than two cents per acre—for the Russian colony. Folklore has it that Americans derided the deal as “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox.” In fact, it was quite popular. The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved the deal ten days after it was signed. Just like that, the United States was one-fifth larger. Alaska was an afterthought for most Americans until the “Klondike Goldrush” of 1897 inspired over 30,000 settlers to head northwest. In 1912, Alaska was formally made a territory of the United States. On January 3, 1959, it became the 49th state.
Centennial of the U.S. Entry into World War I, April 6, 1917
For more than a century, Americans obeyed George Washington’s injunction in his Farewell Address to keep out of the political affairs of Europe. That obedience ended on April 6, 1917, when Congress voted for war against Germany. The break with what had been the defining feature of American foreign policy did not come easily. When the “Great War” began in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson immediately declared U.S. neutrality. But neutrality was hard to maintain. U.S. trade before the war favored Britain and the Allied Powers. With Britain’s dominance of the high seas, that tilt only increased with time. Germany responded by launching unrestricted submarine warfare, which led most famously to the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, and efforts to sabotage ports and railroads in the United States. Germany suspended unrestricted submarine warfare in 1916, but announced its resumption on January 31, 1917. Three days later, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany. Weeks later, he learned of the Zimmermann Telegram, a secret German offer to give Mexico land lost in the Mexican-American War if Mexico joined in a war against the United States. Wilson initially resisted growing public sentiment for war with Germany, worrying what it would do to the country. But he eventually relented. At 8:30 p.m. on April 2, he addressed a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war, saying that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War, June 5-10, 1967
Wars don’t need to last long to have lasting consequences. Take, for example, the Six-Day War. In mid-May 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized Egyptian troops along the Israeli border after Soviet officials told him, incorrectly, that Israel was poised to attack Syria. Over the next week, Nasser evicted a UN peacekeeping force that had been in Gaza and the Sinai since the 1956 Suez War to provide a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces. He then took the step that Israel had said it would consider an act of war: He closed the Straits of Tiran, thereby cutting off Israel’s only access to the Red Sea. The Israelis were good to their word. At 7:45 a.m. on June 5, they launched Operation Focus, a series of devastating airstrikes against Egyptian airfields. Syrian and Jordanian forces immediately joined the fighting. Although numerically outnumbered, the Israelis quickly routed all three Arab militaries. On June 11, a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect. In just six days, Israel doubled the territory under its control, gaining the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and, most important, East Jerusalem. Fifty years later, the results of the Six-Day War still reverberate in the Middle East.
Sesquicentennial of the Creation of the Dominion of Canada, July 1, 1867
The law of unintended consequences applies to countries as well as to people. When the United States expanded westward, it unknowingly helped create Canada. For decades after the American colonists threw off British rule, Canada was a collection of British provinces divided by ethno-linguistic, religious, and political differences. By the 1860s, however, most provincial leaders had come to realize that a confederation would serve their economic and political interests. In the latter case, it would help deter an expansionist United States from turning its sights northward.
The “Fathers of the Confederation” ironed out their final differences at the London Conference of 1866, generating what became the British North America Act. It created the “Dominion of Canada” as of July 1, 1867, with a political system that divided power between the central government and the provincial governments of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. (Prince Edward Island declined to join the confederation until 1873; Newfoundland and Labrador held out until 1949.) The act, however, did not grant Canada independence. Britain still had ultimate legislative and judicial say, and it retained executive authority through the position of Governor-General. Canada would not gain formal legislative independence from Britain until 1931 or complete independence until 1982. Canadians, nonetheless, celebrate July 1 as their national day of independence. O Canada!
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Start of the Biafran War, July 6, 1967
Nigeria, a country just slightly larger than Texas, is home to more than 250 ethnic groups. Hostility among its three most populous ethnic groups helped fuel one of the deadliest conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, the Biafran, or Nigerian Civil War. In January 1966, Igbo officers tried to overthrow Nigeria’s first democratically elected government. Although the coup largely failed, soldiers from the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba ethnic groups launched a counter-coup in July. That triggered pogroms in Northern Nigeria against the Igbo minority, forcing them to flee to their ancestral lands in southeastern Nigeria. On May 30, 1967, their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, proclaimed the independence of an Igbo-dominated Republic of Biafra. But Nigeria would not let Biafra go peacefully.
Five weeks later, on July 6, 1967, with the support of Britain and the Soviet Union, the Nigerian military invaded the new republic. They soon wrested control of the oil fields that the new government depended on to finance food imports. Unable to grow enough food to feed its people, Biafra was devastated by a catastrophic famine. More than one million people died. In January 1970, the Nigerian forces captured the Biafran capital of Owerri, ending the war. There was but one silver lining: The Biafran War led to the founding of Doctors Without Borders.
Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, July 17, 1942 to February 2, 1943
Ask an American to name the most consequential battle of World War II and you are likely to hear D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, or Iwo Jima. But the most consequential, and certainly the bloodiest World War II battle, was the Battle of Stalingrad. In July 1942, Germany had Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic republics firmly under its control. But it desperately needed oil to keep its economy and military running. Hitler’s solution to his predicament was to attack oil-rich areas in the southern Soviet Union. At first, Stalingrad (known today as Volgograd) was a subsidiary objective, with one German general saying it is “no more than a name on a map to us.” But it soon became the main focus.
The fighting initially went well for the Germans. They reached the city’s center by late September. But their advance stalled amid ferocious house-to-house fighting. Then on November 19, Soviet troops led by the General Georgi Zhukov and acting on Stalin’s directive to “not [take] one step back” launched Operation Uranus. They encircled the Germans and cut off their supply lines. Hitler ordered his troops to fight to the last man. But in February 1943, with their supplies and will exhausted, they surrendered. With an estimated two million people killed, the battle was a turning point in the war. The German military never again won a significant battle in the East. Volgograd commemorates the battle by renaming itself “Stalingrad” several times a year.
Quincentennial of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, October 31, 1517
Fifth-century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo profoundly shaped Catholic doctrine. More than a thousand years later, an Augustinian monk challenged that doctrine and triggered the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had been an obscure theologian teaching at various universities in central Germany. Then on October 31, 1517, the 34-year-old defiantly nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, denouncing the Catholic practice of selling “indulgences” to wipe away sins. That act—and his twin contentions that the Bible is the primary source of all religious doctrine and that only faith, not deeds, can lead to salvation—made him one of Western history’s most consequential figures.
Germans angered by what they saw as the Catholic Church’s excesses rallied to Luther’s side, prompting Pope Leo X to issue a “papal bull” condemning his writings. When Luther refused to recant his beliefs before a gathering of secular authorities at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated him and forbade anyone from possessing or reading his writings. That edict was to no avail. Luther’s defiance inspired dozens of reformation movements throughout Europe. The continent would endure more than a century of religious conflicts until the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.
Centennial of the Balfour Declaration, November 2, 1917
The letter that British Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour wrote to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild on November 2, 1917 was no casual thing. It borrowed language that Rothschild himself had supplied months earlier and that Balfour and colleagues had reworked. Why so much effort for a letter that ran just about 125 words? Balfour and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George hoped in good part to notch a much-needed public relations victory. Britain was locked alongside France in a grinding stalemate against Germany. The effort to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war had failed at Gallipoli, and Russia looked ready to bow out of the war. By writing to Rothschild, a leading member of the Jewish community in Britain, with the promise to support the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” they hoped to rally Jewish communities, especially those in Russia and the United States, to the Allied cause.
The Balfour Declaration never quite had that effect. By the time it became public a week later, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia and sued for peace. But the declaration helped publicize, legitimate, and advance the cause of Zionism. Following the end of World War I, the League of Nations gave Britain administration over Palestine in part to implement the declaration’s promise, and Jewish migration to Palestine increased dramatically. The British government soon learned that the promises it made about a Jewish homeland conflicted with its wartime promises to Arab leaders.
Other significant historical anniversaries in 2017
April 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the Greek monarchy. April 28 is the bicentennial of the signing of the Rush-Bagot Treaty. May 29 marks the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy. June 4 is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. August 26 marks the bicentennial of the University of Michigan, the official favorite university of The Water’s Edge. September 14 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. October 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. November 22, 1967, marks the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which demanded that Israel withdraw from territories it occupied during the Six-Day War. December 27 is the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
On the Lighter Side
January 15 marks the 125th anniversary of James Naismith’s publishing of the rules of basketball. June 1 is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. October 1 marks the 50th anniversary of Jim Lonborg’s 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, capping the Impossible Dream season in which the Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant after finishing in ninth place the year before. October 12 marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Gibson’s complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox in the seventh game of the World Series, giving the St. Louis Cardinals the title and breaking the heart of an eight-year-old boy in Billerica, Massachusetts. October 31 marks the 125th anniversary of the debut of Sir Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. November 26 is the centennial of the National Hockey League’s founding and the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Casablanca. December 3 is the 50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant. December 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Graduate.
Bardia Vaseghi and Jonathan Levitt assisted in the preparation of this post.
This post appears courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations.