History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.
Cesar Chavez (March 31, 1927 - April 23, 1993)
March 31, 1492: Ferdinand and Isabella issue the Alhambra Decree.
The Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim rulers who had conquered it in the 8th century (and called it al-Andalus) ended when the Emirate of Granada capitulated to Ferdinand and Isabella. Under the terms of the 1491 Treaty of Granada, the monarchs granted some rights and protections to Muslims and Jews - under Muslim rule, the latter group had seen a cultural “golden age” that lasted several centuries. In 1492, however, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, also called the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the expulsion of Jews from their dominions. For a sense of the extent of these dominions, their titles were:
King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Seville, Sardinia, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, of the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, and of the Canary Islands, count and countess of Barcelona and lords of Biscay and Molina, dukes of Athens and Neopatria, counts of Rousillon and Cerdana, marquises of Oristan and of Gociano.
A decade earlier, the monarchs had established the Spanish Inquisition to help uphold the Catholic orthodoxy of the realm; under the influence of Spain’s first Grand Inquisitor, the notorious Tomás de Torquemada, the monarchs were compelled by their religious duty to expel from their dominions all Jews who had not yet converted to Catholicism (called, along with Muslim converts, conversos). This was not the only or earliest incidence of Jewish expulsion in Europe: in 1290, Edward I of England issued his own Edict of Expulsion, which stood until the 17th century; French monarchs expelled and re-admitted their Jewish subjects several times throughout the late Middle Ages; and during the Black Plague, which devastated Europe during the mid-14th century, Jews blamed for spreading the diseases fled persecution by their neighbors. Under the Alhambra Decree, around 200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain, emigrating primarily to North Africa and Turkey. While tens of thousands of conversos remained in Spain, they were not fully protected from the Inquisition by their conversion.
The Alhambra Decree was revoked 476 years later on December 17, 1968.
March 30, 1940: Japan establishes a Chinese puppet government in Nanjing.
In 1931, the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria (the northeast portion of China) following the Mukden Incident and, following its successful conquest of the region, established a puppet state known as Manchukuo, or Manshū-koku, which came to be “ruled” in 1934 by Puyi, China’s last emperor, who had been permanently deposed in 1917. In 1937, a clash known as the Marco Polo Incident marked the beginning of total war between China and Japan and the beginning of the full-scale Japanese invasion of China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his forces (which had temporarily made peace with the Chinese Communist Party in the midst of their civil war) managed to hold off the Japanese reasonably well, though his armies incurred massive casualties and the war cost countless civilian lives as well. In 1937, the Japanese captured the Nationalist capital at Nanjing and carried out a massacre against its inhabitants that came to be known as the “Rape of Nanking”.
The Kuomingtang fled to Chongqing, and in 1940 the Japanese established a collaborationist government to rival the relocated KMT government; this new “Reorganized National Government of China” was led by Wang Jingwei (pictured above), a former member of the KMT, known in postwar China as a Benedict Arnold-type collaborationist traitor. The new government used the same flag (with an extra pennant reading “peace, anti-Communism, national construction”) and emblem as the KMT government and claimed to be the rightful government of China, although it was not recognized by any of the Allied powers, nor did it exert any actual governing power over the regions it was supposedly given control over (i.e. ostensibly all of China except Manchukuo). It operated under three main principles: pan-Asianism, anti-communism, and anti-KMT. Wang Jingwei, whose government was subject to constant sabotage and resistance throughout the war, died before its end, in 1944, and the regime was dissolved in 1945 after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
March 29, 1951: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
In August of 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear weapons test when it detonated RDS-1, or First Lightning (Joe-1 to the United States) in Kazakhstan; when President Truman notified the American public of this new and shocking (and shockingly, suspiciously fast, in the eyes of the West) development in September of 1949, the nations were thrust into a nuclear arms race. In 1950, a German physicist named Klaus Fuchs was arrested by British authorities, who revealed him to be an atomic spy for the Soviets, having supposedly supplied for the Soviet program atomic research from the United States. Fuchs, in turn, identified Swiss-born chemist Harry Gold as his courier, and Gold’s confessions led authorities to David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, Army machinist for the Manhattan Project, and Soviet spy.
The Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, joined the American Communist Party in 1942. In June of 1950, Julius was arrested after being named by Greenglass as a spy, and Ethel was arrested shortly after in August; their trial began on March 6, 1951, and throughout their testimonies neither would speak on anything that might incriminate other members of the Communist Party. Both were convicted of espionage and sentenced to death under the Espionage Act of 1917; Irving Kaufman, the judge who imposed their sentences, famously remarked:
I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason…
Many Americans undoubtedly agreed with Kaufman’s condemnations, yet still the Rosenbergs had their supporters, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, who criticized Americans’ hysteria, accusing them of being “afraid of the shadow of [their] own bomb”; Pablo Picasso, who called the Rosenbergs’ impending execution a “crime against humanity”; and many others, including Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, and Bertolt Brecht. Even the Pope implored President Eisenhower to commute the couple’s death sentence, to no avail - on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg became the first and only American civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. It remains unclear how much the Rosenberg’s treason actually advanced Soviet atomic research, or whether Ethel was actually guilty of any treason (her participation and guilt were vehemently denied by their two surviving children).
March 27, 1854: The Crimean War begins.
The Crimean War was one of the first major conflicts to pit the Great Powers of Europe against each other following the Napoleonic Wars. It was fought between an alliance made up of the French, British, and Ottoman Empires (with support from Sardinia) and the Russian Empire, with much of the action taking place on the namesake peninsula of Crimea, and it arose as a result of a number of different factors (though much of it centered around the slowly-decaying Ottoman Empire). In the summer of 1853, Tsar Nicholas I sent troops to Moldovia and Wallachia, principalities then under the control of the Ottomans, leading the Ottoman Empire to declare war on the Russians in October 1853, followed by the belated France and Great Britain on March 27 and 28 of the next year after Russian ships destroyed an Ottoman force at the Battle of Sinop.
Like the American Civil War a decade later and an ocean away, the Crimean War was one of the first “modern” wars. Railroads, armored warships, and telegraphs were used, and William Howard Russell acted as one of the world’s first modern war correspondents when he covered the action for the Times; similarly, Roger Fenton presented some of the first examples of war photography to the public - his famous photo “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is pictured above. Wedged between the Napoleonic Wars and the 20th century, the Crimean War was also a conflict that combined elements of both, most obviously in that tactics had not yet caught up with technology. In addition, Russia’s defeat in the war proved to be one of the factors that led to Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of Russia’s large population of serfs. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, and it was tremendously unpopular on both sides as well.
Many of the cultural aspects of the war have outlived the military and political - for example, women like Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale (both of whom treated soldiers at the famous Siege of Sevastopol) are better-known than the conflict they served during, and the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at the Battle of Balaclava was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem.
March 26, 1812: The term “gerrymander” first appears in print.
The phenomenon dubbed “gerrymandering” by the Boston Gazette, in which district boundaries are redrawn (often to from an irregular shape) to grant a party an advantage in an election, was named for Elbridge Gerry, then governor of Massachusetts. In 1812, Gerry signed a piece of legislation that defined new state districts which favored his own party, the Democratic-Republicans, over the Federalist challengers; in the following election, the Democratic-Republicans retained their majority in the state senate, although Gerry lost his governorship. The famous cartoon that appeared in the Gazette, likely created by Elkanah Tisdale, depicted these new oddly-shaped districts as a reptilian creature called the “Gerry-Mander”, a combination of the governor’s name and “salamander”.
By the mid-1800s, use of the word “Gerry-Mander”, which became “gerrymander”, soon spread beyond its original use as a reference to Elbridge Gerry’s salamander districts, to describe a technique that has been in use in American politics since the country’s founding and endures to this day.