This Week In American History: May 1st - May 7th

May 1

1926

Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies in America to adopt a five-day, 40-hour workweek for workers in its automotive factories. Ford believed that overworking employees was bad for their productivity, and giving them more down time without compromising their financial well-being would help increase worker loyalty and commitment to Ford Motor Company. Ford’s groundwork, along with a great deal of effort from the new labor unions, encouraged manufacturers all over the country and world to adopt the Monday-to-Friday standard workweek.

1931

President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated New York City's Empire State Building, pressing a button from the White House that turns on the building’s lights. Hoover’s gesture, of course, was symbolic; while the president remained in Washington D.C., someone else flicked the switches in New York. The idea for the Empire State Building is said to have been born of a competition between Walter Chrysler of the Chrysler Corporation and John Jakob Raskob of General Motors. Chrysler had already begun work on the famous Chrysler Building, the gleaming 1,046-foot skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. At the time of its completion, the Empire State Building, at 102 stories and 1,250 feet high (1,454 feet to the top of the lightning rod), was the world’s tallest skyscraper.

1941

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made its debut at RKO Palace Theater. The landmark film began generating such controversy that Radio City Music Hall eventually refused to show it. The 24-year-old Welles had already made a name for himself as Hollywood’s "enfant terrible" and based his new film on on the life of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, who presided over the country’s leading newspaper empire. Hearst himself was incensed and tried to suppress the film. Although reviews were favorable, and it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, it was a box office failure. However, years after its initial release, it consistently ranks at the top of film critics’ lists, most notably grabbing the No. 1 spot on the American Film Institute’s poll of America’s 100 Greatest Films.

May 2

1949

Arthur Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman. Debuting on Broadway the same year, it is a two-act tragedy, set in 1940s New York told through a montage of memories, dreams, and arguments of the protagonist Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who is disappointed with his life, and appears to be slipping into senility. The play contains a variety of themes, such as the American Dream, the anatomy of truth, and infidelity. It explores the psychological chaos of the protagonist, and the capitalist society's impact on his life. It is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

1972

After nearly five decades as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBY, J Edgar Hoover died, leaving the powerful government agency without the administrator who had been largely responsible for its existence and shape. Hoover joined the Department of Justice in 1917 and was appointed acting director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. During the 1920s, with Congress’ approval, Director Hoover drastically restructured and expanded the Bureau of Investigation. He built the corruption-ridden agency into an efficient crime-fighting machine, establishing a centralized fingerprint file, a crime laboratory, and a training school for agents.

2011

Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, was killed by U.S. forces during a raid on his compound hideout in Pakistan. The notorious, 54-year-old leader of Al Qaeda, the terrorist network of Islamic extremists, had been the target of a nearly decade-long international manhunt. The raid began when 23 U.S. Navy SEALs in two Black Hawk helicopters descended on the compound. Just after 11:30 p.m. EST, President Barack Obama, who monitored the raid in real time via footage shot by a drone flying high above Abbottabad, made a televised address from the White House, announcing bin Laden’s death. “Justice has been done,” the president said.

May 3

1936

Batting ahead of Lou Gehrig in the lineup, Joe DiMaggio made his major league debut with The Yankees. DiMaggio was a three-time Most Valuable Player Award winner and an All-Star in each of his 13 seasons. During his tenure with the Yankees, the club won ten American League pennants and nine World Series championships. His nine career World Series rings is second only to fellow Yankee Yogi Berra, who won thirteen. Considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, he had a 56 game hitting streak, a record that still stands. He retired in 1951 and was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.

1951

The Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, meeting jointly in closed session, began hearings into President Harry S. Truman’s dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. As the featured witness at the opening session, MacArthur spoke for more than six hours. He assailed Truman’s Cold War foreign policy, arguing that if the president’s “inhibitions” about extending the war into Communist China had been removed, the conflict could have been “wound up” without a “very great additional complement of ground troops.” The hearings ended with no heard conclusions. MacArthur tried to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1952. But he lost out to another famed military leader with a more moderate political outlook: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

1952

A ski-modified U.S. Air Force C-47 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher of Oklahoma and Lieutenant Colonel William P. Benedict of California became the first aircraft to land on the North Pole. A moment later, Fletcher climbed out of the plane and walked to the exact geographic North Pole. While American explorer Robert Peary is credited with reaching the North Pole first, recent studies indicate he was about 30 miles short of the exact North Pole. Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher was the first person to undisputedly stand on the North Pole.

May 4

1776

Rhode Island, the colony founded by the most radical religious dissenters from the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, became the first North American colony to renounce its allegiance to King George III, Rhode Island served as a mercantile center of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Desire to protect this lucrative triangle trade led Rhode Islanders to bristle at British attempts to tighten their control over their colonies’ commerce. Ironically, Rhode Island would be the last state to ratify the new American Constitution more than 14 years later on May 29, 1790. Rhode Island was one of the few states that could survive fiscally independent from the proposed federal union and did not want to lose income to the new federal government.

1970

In Kent, Ohio, 28 National Guardsmen fired their weapons at a group of anti-war demonstrators on the Kent State University campus, killing four students, wounding eight, and permanently paralyzing another. The tragedy was a watershed moment for a nation divided by the conflict in Vietnam, and further galvanized the anti-war movement. The shootings led to protests on college campuses across the country. Photographs of the massacre became enduring images of the anti-war movement. In 1974, at the end of a criminal investigation, a federal court dropped all charges levied against eight Ohio National Guardsmen for their role in the Kent State students’ deaths.

1977

U.S. television viewers watched the first of a four-part series of exclusive interviews of former President Richard Nixon by David Frost, a British journalist. The initial broadcast focused on the Watergate scandal, which had led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. In the interview, Nixon admitted that he had “let the American people down” by masterminding the process that precipitated the botched 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices. But he denied that he had sought to obstruct justice, a key impeachment charge lodged against him by the House Judiciary Committee. Nixon also told Frost that the day he resigned was “the first time I cried since [former President Dwight] Eisenhower died.”

May 5

1848

House Speaker Robert Winthrop of Massachusetts signed a resolution bestowing a third Congressional Gold Medal on Army Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s three medals were awarded within a span of two years. Each honored a different phase of his service during the Mexican-American War. Sworn into office as the nation’s 12th president on March 4, 1849, Taylor is one of five presidents to win this medal. But he remains the only person to receive three of them. Beginning with a presentation to George Washington, the Congressional Gold Medal has reflected the nation’s appreciation of distinguished military achievements or lifesaving heroics. In recent decades, though, lawmakers have significantly broadened the criteria.

1904

37-year-old Cy Young pitched the first perfect game in modern Major League Baseball history as the Boston Americans defeat the Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0. Young struck out eight of the 27 batters he faced and benefited from excellent defense in a game that is completed in only 83 minutes. A perfect game is achieved when a pitcher retires all the batters he faces in order, with no one reaching base. Young, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, finished his 22-year career with an 511 career wins, 94 ahead Walter Johnson, who is second. In 1956, MLB created the Cy Young Award to honor the game's best pitcher. Starting in 1967, the award was given to the best pitchers in the National and American leagues.

    

1961

Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. was launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

May 6

1935

President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The agency was responsible for one of the many relief programs set up soon after Roosevelt entered the White House. Created under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which Roosevelt signed a month earlier, it sought to ease the effects of the Great Depression. While FDR professed a strong belief in the “elementary principles of justice and fairness,” he also rejected the notion of paying welfare to able workers. So, in exchange for financial assistance to “the deserving poor,” recipients of WPA aid built highways, schools, hospitals and airports. At one point, the WPA was the nation’s largest employer.

1937

The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, burst into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew-members. On May 3rd, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany, for a journey across the Atlantic to Lakehurst’s Navy Air Base. The explosion most likely occurred after a spark ignited its hydrogen core. Stretching 804 feet from stern to bow, it carried 36 passengers and a crew of 61. Lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favor after the Hindenberg disaster, and no rigid airships survived World War II.

2004

The Rembrandts' “I’ll Be There For You” announced the beginning of the end as an estimated 51.1 million people tuned in for the final original episode of NBC’s long-running comedy series Friends. Friends debuted 10 years and 236 episodes earlier in 1994 and was set in NYC's Greenwich Village, where six friends struggled with the ups-and-downs of young adult life in the big city—albeit while living in an impossibly large, cushy apartment, apparently without the burden of having to spend much time working actual jobs. Almost from the beginning, Friends was a cultural phenomenon, winning six Emmy Awards, sparking hairstyle trends (“the Rachel”), spawning catch phrases (“How you doin?”) and turning its six principal cast members into household names.

May 7

1789

George Washington attended a ball a week after being sworn in as the first U.S. president. Him and Martha danced a minuet, captured in a drawing displayed on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Another decade passed before the first official inaugural ball, which was held in honor of James Madison, the fourth president. Since then, inaugural balls have become more or less a quadrennial presidential fixture. However, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, and Warren Harding, in 1921, both passed up balls, citing the need to economize. FDR was another exception, choosing to work through the night rather than attend his first inaugural ball in 1933. He canceled the next three galas because of the Depression and WWII.

1945

The German High Command, in the person of General Alfred Jodl, signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces, East and West, at Reims, in northeastern France. At first, General Jodl hoped to limit the terms of German surrender to only those forces still fighting the Western Allies. But US General Dwight Eisenhower demanded complete surrender of all German forces, those fighting in the East as well as in the West. If this demand was not met, Eisenhower was prepared to seal off the Western front, preventing Germans from fleeing to the West in order to surrender, thereby leaving them in the hands of the enveloping Soviet forces. Fighting would still go on in the East for almost another day. But the war in the West was over.

1998

The German automobile company Daimler-Benz–maker of the world-famous luxury car brand Mercedes-Benz–announces a $36 billion merger with the United States-based Chrysler Corporation. The purchase of Chrysler, America’s third-largest car company, by the Stuttgart-based Daimler-Benz marked the biggest acquisition by a foreign buyer of any U.S. company in history and the new company was named DaimlerChrysler AG. While Daimler had been attracted by the profitability of Chrysler’s minivans and Jeeps, over the next few years profits were up and down, and by the fall of 2003 the Chrysler Group had cut some 26,000 jobs and was still losing money. By late 2008, increasingly dismal sales led Chrysler to seek federal funds to the tune of $4 billion to stay afloat.