May 22, 1945: Operation Paperclip begins.
On May 22, 1945, Major Robert B. Staver transmitted a telegram to the Pentagon stressing the need for the U.S. government to initiate an evacuation of select German scientists, at the time mostly men involved in the German rocket program. This took place approximately two weeks after Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, although the project and the basic idea of interviewing/interrogating German scientists was conceived during the war. The name Operation Overcast was designated in the summer of 1945 until it was replaced by the better-known name “Operation Paperclip”; the project formally began in August of 1945 with two objectives: to learn more about advances made by German scientists and researchers during the Nazi era, and to apply these advances and the minds of German scientists and researchers to achieve American goals. World War II begot significant advances in technology, as bloody and brutal wars are wont to do; on the German side, specifically, scientists created the first rocket-powered planes, the first modern assault rifle, an early cruise missile, and the world’s first ballistic missile. It was therefore in the country’s best interest to acquire and employ the minds behind these technologies, and to deny the Soviet Union these resources.
Under Operation Paperclip, over 1,500 scientists and technicians working in a variety of fields were recruited from Germany to the United States. It was administered by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, which also circumvented Harry Truman’s orders to disqualify any scientists with Nazi sympathies from the program by falsifying records and backgrounds. Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in the development of the American space program, was also a self-proclaimed non-political member of the NSDAP during the war, and yet he was also complicit in the V-2 rocket program’s extensive use of slave labor, even admitting that he had personally picked out concentration camp prisoners to use as workers. Other prominent German scientists who found work in the United States under Operation Paperclip included Walter Dornberger, another V-2 scientist who in the postwar period worked on the development of guided missiles; Kurt Blome, who was saved from a war crimes conviction at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in exchange for his expertise on biological warfare; and dozens of other German rocket scientists.
Wernher von Braun was indisputably the most famous of them all; for both his work in Germany and in the United States, he was known as the “Father of Rocket Science”. America’s first ballistic missile, the PGM-11 Redstone, was based on his V-2 rocket, as were the rockets used in the the launching of Explorer 1 and the Freedom 7 spaceflight. In July of 1969, a Saturn V rocket designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun and a group of German scientists launched three American men into space on the Apollo 11 spaceflight, the climax of the Space Race.
May 21, 1979: The White Night riots begin.
On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk - San Francisco’s first and one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials - was shot and killed by San Francisco supervisor Dan White (also killed in the attack was Mayor George Moscone). White and Milk had served together (and often clashed on issues while serving together) on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under Dianne Feinstein for around ten months before White, citing his disgust at the corruption of city politics and his need for a higher salary, resigned his position as supervisor. After Moscone declined his request for re-appointment to his position at Milk’s (and others’) urging, White assassinated both men at San Francisco City Hall.
White’s trial officially began on May 1, 1979. The jury announced its verdict three weeks later after 36 hours of deliberation — White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison; his defense team had successfully argued that, because of White’s spiral into depression (as evidenced by his change in diet from healthy foods to junk food), he would have been unable to premeditate murder, therefore making it impossible for him to be charged with first degree murder. Instead, White’s assassination of Milk and Mayor Moscone was defined as third degree murder, a “heat of passion” crime, and the least severe conviction White could have managed to leave the courtroom with, despite the fact that White had admitted to planning the assassinations of Carol Ruth Silver and Willie Brown.
The “White Night riots” began in the Castro District (where Harvey Milk began his work as a gay rights activist) as a gathering of several hundred people, mostly members of the Castro’s LGBT community. Enraged over White’s light sentence, thousands of protesters erupted into violence, and riots broke out near City Hall. By the end of the incident, during which policemen indiscriminately attacked rioters and vice versa, sixty-one policemen and around 100 protesters were hospitalized. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, tensions between San Francisco’s conservative elements and its growing minority populations increased as the latter groups gained political and economic influence - this hostile divide was apparent within the Board of Supervisors, in the conflict between White (who was relatively conservative) and Milk, and in the White Night riots, which pitted the city’s police department, which had raised money for White’s defense, against the city’s gay community, which had been revitalized under Milk’s leadership and by his election.
In 1985, Dan White committed suicide. Harvey Milk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously rules public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
Fifty-nine years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case that the segregation of public schools was prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group…. We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
The doctrine of “separate but equal” as justification for racial segregation emerged in the United States in the 1890s and was upheld in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court ruled that states could enact racial segregation laws; in the South, this legitimized the dismantlement of Reconstruction Era reform and the South’s enactment of Jim Crow laws. Many states in the North/members of the Union during the Civil War also maintained racially segregated schools — it was the policy of the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that Oliver L. Brown and twelve other plaintiffs sought to challenge, after all. At the time, the Board’s policy permitted Topeka’s school districts to segregate their elementary and middle schools. Under the direction of the NAACP, each of the plaintiffs enrolled their children in local all-white schools and, when their children were refused enrollment, filed a class action suit in the District Court of Kansas, which subsequently ruled in favor of the Board. This decision took place in 1951.
The case that was heard by the Supreme Court in 1953 was a combination of five similar cases (all backed by the NAACP), including Brown v. Board, which lent the Supreme Court case its name. After much deliberation, including a request to rehear the case after the court failed to reach a decision the first time, the Warren Court banned (in a unanimous decision) the segregation of public schools. The justices were divided on how Brown could be enforced and on the issue of judicial activism versus restraint, though Warren pushed for unanimity to further legitimize the decision and prevent Southern resistance (it did not). Although Brown was a key decision and the first step toward the end of de jure segregation, the path to desegregation was long and rocky; Topeka desegregated its elementary schools within two years, but resistance in the South against the court’s decision and against desegregation was inexorable, resulting in incidents such as the Little Rock Crisis and other manifestations of what Virginian politicians dubbed “massive resistance”.
May 7, 1915: A German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania was one of the most infamous events of World War I, carried out by the SM U-20 as part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain and its allies. The event, which took the lives of nearly 1,200 people (including 128 American citizens), enraged the British and Americans, provided the basis for effective war and recruitment propaganda in the future, and turned public opinion in the United States against Germany so quickly that the country’s carefully preserved neutrality threatened to collapse. It did not, at least not until 1917, when Germany declared its intention to resume its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, which reignited Americans’ lingering anger over the Lusitania.
At the time of its sinking, the Lusitania had officially been carrying as cargo war materials (ammunition, fuses, artillery shells), making it, in the eyes of the Germans, a legitimate military target, despite the fact that the ship was also at the time carrying 1,959 people. Of that number, 1,198 died when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank in 18 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours 40 minutes it took for Lusitania’s White Star Line Rival, RMS Titanic, to sink, but like with Titanic, most of the deaths probably resulted from hypothermia, as survivors of the initial torpedoing awaited rescue floating for hours in the waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, the manner in which the Lusitania sank rendered most of its lifeboats unusable. The commander of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was labeled by some a war criminal, although despite sparking outrage in the United States, the attack was not on its own enough to bring the country into the war. Three days later President Wilson made this comment in a speech:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
May 6, 1895: Rudolph Valentino is born.
Born in Italy, Rudolph Valentino was one of the most popular actors of the last years of the silent movie era - his most notable films, including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and The Son of the Sheik, were released between 1921 and 1926, the year of his death. Unlike swaggering swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and masculine leading men like John Gilbert, Valentino was loved and criticized for his “femininity” and his un-American, exotic looks, which caused him to be typecast in roles like that of the titular character in The Sheik. One editorial in the Chicago Tribune was scathing in its criticism of Valentino and his destructive (in the opinion of the editorial’s author) attack on American masculinity:
A powder vending machine! In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic], alias Valentino, years ago?… Do women like the type of “man” who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?
Valentino’s popularity as a romantic lead and sex symbol was unrivaled at the time (and few from that era have left legacies as enduring), and when he died of pleuritis at the early age of thirty-one, it was reported that several of his fans had attempted suicide and that riots had broken out at his funeral. His untimely death only further cemented his status as a cultural icon.
May 4, 1970: The Kent State shootings take place.
The shooting of unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, was one of the most notorious domestic events of the Vietnam War Era. It took place in the midst of a protest which itself was a reaction against government policy; antiwar sentiment was widespread throughout the nation, particularly among young people, so when President Nixon announced in late April that the U.S. military was to conduct military operations in Cambodia in pursuit of the PAVN and Viet Cong forces (which seemed to contradict his policy of Vietnamization and détente), student-organized protests on university campuses across the country erupted. These student strikes eventually involved at least 400 campuses, although the National Guard was deployed to only twenty-one of them, one of which was Kent State University in Ohio.
The Kent State demonstration began on May 1; the National Guard was called to the campus on May 2 by Governor James Rhodes, who denounced the student protesters and claimed that they were ”the worst type of people that we harbor in America”, comparing them to Nazi brownshirts and the Ku Klux Klan. Many in Kent and across the nation agreed with the governor’s condemnation of student protests, but just as many disagreed, to varying degrees. When the shooting and killing of Kent State students made national headlines, the issue remained just as divisive, with many believing that the students had brought the violence upon themselves. On May 4, the tensions between the guardsmen and students heightened. Tear gas was used in the guardsmens’ attempts to disperse the crowd, and at some point in the confusion, for some still unknown reason, a little under half of the 77 guardsmen present began to fire into the crowd of students. The guardsmen later claimed that they had been shot by a sniper and were firing in self-defense; this claim was denied vehemently by the students, who admitted to throwing rocks, and also by the New York Times reporter who had been on the scene. The reporter also wrote:
As the guardsmen, moving up the hill in single file, reached the crest, they suddenly turned, forming a skirmish line and opening fire.
The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air. It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.
Some of the students dived to the ground, crawling on the grass in terror. Others stood shocked or half crouched, apparently believing the troops were firing into the air. Some of the rifle barrels were pointed upward.
Near the top of the hill at the corner of Taylor Hall, a student crumpled over, spun sideways and fell to the ground, shot in the head.
When the firing stopped, a slim girl, wearing a cowboy shirt and faded jeans, was lying face down on the road at the edge of the parking lot, blood pouring out onto the macadam, about 10 feet from this reporter.
Four students were killed, and nine were wounded (one was permanently paralyzed from chest down). Of the four killed by rifle fire, two had not been participants in the protest. According to eyewitness accounts, the students were shocked at the fact that the guardsmen had fired upon them and even more shocked that they had fired live ammunition instead of blanks. John Filo, the photographer who captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller (pictured above), also believed at first that the guardsmen were firing blanks. President Nixon expressed regret for the killings, although he suggested that the students’ disruptive activities had “[invited] tragedy”, and, according to a Gallup poll, the public agreed - according to the survey, only 11 percent placed blame on the National Guard, while 58 percent blamed the students. Eleven days later, two black students were killed at Jackson State University during an antiwar protest, though these events failed to capture national attention as the Kent State shootings did.