August 2, 1945: The Potsdam Conference ends.
The Potsdam Conference was attended by Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman (Roosevelt had died that year in April), and Winston Churchill (later replaced by Clement Attlee). Nazi Germany had surrendered three months prior, and Japan had yet to surrender (it would not do so until September of that year). The most pressing matter was the postwar status of Germany; the Soviet Union, who had suffered by far the largest amount of casualties, naturally demanded the heaviest reparations. Eventually, it was decided that Germany and Austria (and their respective capitals) would be divided into four occupation zones. Germany lost the territories it acquired post-1933 and populations of Germans living in disputed areas were expelled. Germany would be demilitarized, democratized, and denazified; additionally, plans were made for German war criminals to be put on trial.
The Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum to Japan promising “prompt and utter destruction" if they did not surrender unconditionally, was also issued during this conference. The declaration was rejected, and four days later, the USAAF dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.
June 24, 1812: The French invasion of Russia begins.
Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia began when he and his Grande Armée (swelled to some 690,000 troops) crossed the Nieman River on this day 200 years ago. By this time, Napoleon’s grip over Europe was already slackening, and his own physical and mental condition was in slow decline. Like Hitler’s invasion 129 years later, Napoleon’s first advance into Russian territory was fairly successful, but lack of supplies, scorched-earth tactics, disease, and the brutal effects of the Russian Winter undid Napoleon’s initial successes.
At the Battle of Borodino (fought in September of 1812) at least 70,000 of his troops were killed or wounded - the bloodiest single-day action during this invasion. And, though the battle ended in a Russian retreat, they eventually recovered from their losses. Napoleon, facing diminishing supplies and nothing much to show for his efforts other than the captured - but abandoned Russian capital, began his own retreat in October of 1812, with the Russians in pursuit. By the end of the campaign, his Grande Armée was a fraction of what it had been, with less than 30,000 troops still fit for battle; although Napoleon would raise new armies and achieve later military successes, French power would never fully recover.
The first Memorial Day-type commemorations were observed during and after the Civil War. In 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic organization proclaimed that May 30 of that year should be observed as Decoration Day, and by 1890, Decoration Day was an official holiday in every northern state. In 1967, Decoration Day became Memorial Day by Federal law.
From Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr’s 1884 Memorial Day Address - In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire:
So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiam and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might… More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate.
May 23, 1945: Heinrich Himmler commits suicide.
As Reichsführer-SS, HeinrichHimmler was, for a time, one of Hitler’s most powerful, most trusted officials, but as the war neared its end, even he began to see the futility of Germany’s faltering war effort. In April of 1945, Himmler approached the Allies and proposed to surrender all of Germany’s troops in the West, perhaps in the hope that he might be spared (or at least, shown mercy) when the inevitable war crimes trials came along. By now, however, many of the major concentration camps had been uncovered and liberated by Allied forces, and Himmler, as head of the SS, was now irrevocably associated with these newly-discovered atrocities.
Hitler, upon receiving the news of his treue Heinrich's betrayal, was enraged. In his last will and testament, he stripped Himmler of all his titles and expelled him from the party, claiming that he and Hermann Göring, by negotiating with the enemy, had “done immeasurable harm to the country and the whole nation”.
Rejected by both the Allied leaders and by his own colleagues, Himmler attempted one last time to avoid prosecution by contacting General Eisenhower (also apparently thinking that he might somehow secure a position in Germany’s postwar government). Naturally, this offer was also rejected - Himmler, to the Allies, was now nothing more than a desperate war criminal. He wandered for several weeks in disguise near the Danish border before being apprehended by Allied soldiers, who recognized him, though his papers gave his name as “Heinrich Hitzinger”. Himmler would have stood trial at the Nuremberg, which would have undoubtedly ended in his hanging, but he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule just a day after his capture. Supposedly, his last words were “Ich bin Heinrich Himmler!”
May 8, 1945: Hostilities in Europe end.
On May 7, 1945, German representatives signed the German Instrument of Surrender in Reims, France. Shortly before midnight on the same day, a second surrender was signed in Berlin (a location chosen by the Soviet representatives), and on May 8, 1945, one minute after midnight, hostilities in Europe were officially over. By the time the war in Europe ended, millions of people (civilians and soldiers alike) had lost their lives to what is still the deadliest conflict in human history. The Soviet Union, where much of the bloodiest fighting took place, saw an estimated 24 million of its people die, a number that, on its own, made up nearly half of the total death toll. The United Kingdom, Italy, France, and the United States each suffered several hundred thousand military deaths over the course of a few years of fighting. And Germany, though obviously the instigator of the war, had ultimately lost millions of civilians to it as well.
In his announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender, Karl Dönitz, the Third Reich’s last head of state, addressed the imminent crisis of Germany’s postwar future. As the rest of the world celebrated his country’s defeat and subjugation, he stated:
All of us have to face a difficult path… We must walk it by making the greatest efforts to create a firm basis for our future lives. We will walk it unitedly. Without this unity we shall not be able to overcome the misery of the times to come. We will walk it in the hope that one day our children may lead a free and secure existence in a peaceful Europe.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the people of the United Kingdom. In one, he addressed a crowd from the balcony of Ministry of Health in Whitehall, and he declared: “God bless you all. This is your victory!”, to which the people below replied “No - it is yours.”
April 30, 1975: Saigon falls to North Vietnamese forces.
The Vietnam War outlasted John F. Kennedy, ruined Lyndon B. Johnson, and was ended (as far as American combat troops were concerned) by Richard Nixon in 1973. The last offensive of the war, however, lasted between December of 1974 and April 30, 1975, ending with the fall (or liberation) of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces. Saigon was thereafter officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and today, April 30 is celebrated in Vietnam as Liberation Day.
One of the most famous events that took place during the fall of Saigon was Operation Frequent Wind, a large-scale effort by the United States to evacuate Americans and Vietnamese out of the city. The Defense Attaché Office compound and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon were intended to be the main evacuation points of the operation (the latter less so), but the Embassy soon became the main focus as it was overwhelmed by desperate Vietnamese evacuees - some of whom had scaled barbed wire-covered walls in order to reach the helicopters.
When the operation ended, hundreds of people were left behind, but some 7,000 were successfully evacuated by helicopter, including thousands of Vietnamese (many were granted entry into the United States). Although the efforts were considered fairly successful, President Ford later wrote in a letter regarding the events:
I pray that no future American President is ever faced with the grim options that confronted me as the military situation on the ground deteriorated…
We did the best we could. History will judge whether we could have done better… A quarter century later, I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue.
An excellent collection of pictures from Operation Frequent Wind can be found here.