This Week In American History: May 8th - May 14th

May 8

1945

Both Great Britain and the United States celebrate Victory in Europe Day. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi War Machine during World War II. German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms: In Prague, Germans surrendered to their Soviet antagonists; in Copenhagen and Oslo; at Karlshorst, near Berlin; in northern Latvia; on the Channel Island of Sark—the German surrender was realized in a final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany. Pockets of German-Soviet confrontation would continue into the next day. Consequently, V-E Day was not celebrated until the ninth in Moscow.

1975

The theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter” was the #1 song in America. Written by John Sebastian, he tried writing a song that featured the show's title, Kotter. Somehow the rhymes he came up with for “Kotter”—otter, water, daughter, slaughter—didn’t really lend themselves to a show about a middle-aged schoolteacher returning to his scrappy Brooklyn neighborhood to teach remedial students at his own former high school. So Sebastian took a more thoughtful approach to the task at hand and came up with a song about finding your true calling in a life you thought you’d left behind. That song, “Welcome Back,” not only went on to become a #1 pop single, but it also led the show’s producers to change its title to Welcome Back, Kotter.

2010

88-year-old actress Betty White, known for her former roles on “The Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” became the oldest person to host the long-running, late-night TV sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” (SNL). White’s hosting gig came about, in part, after hundreds of thousands of her fans signed onto a Facebook campaign rallying for it. As SNL’s eldest host, White earned positive reviews, and the show, which featured musical guest Jay-Z, drew its highest ratings in 18 months. The octogenarian actress later won the seventh Emmy Award of her career for her SNL appearance. White died on December 31, 2021, just shy of her 100th birthday.

May 9

1945

Herman Goering, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, president of the Reichstag, head of the Gestapo, prime minister of Prussia and Hitler’s designated successor, was taken prisoner by Lt. Gen. A. M. Patch’s U.S. Seventh Army in Bavaria. When Goering fell into U.S. hands after Germany’s surrender, he had in his possession a rich stash of pills. He was tried at Nuremberg and charged with various crimes against humanity. Despite a vigorous attempt at self acquittal, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but before he could be executed, he died by suicide by swallowing a cyanide tablet he had hidden from his guards.

1950

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. With this book, Hubbard introduced a branch of self-help psychology called Dianetics, which quickly caught fire and, over time, morphed into a belief system called Scientology. In Dianetics, Hubbard explained that phenomena known as “engrams” (i.e. memories) were the cause of all psychological pain, which in turn harmed mental and physical health. He went on to claim that people could become “clear,” achieving an exquisite state of clarity and mental liberation, by exorcising their engrams to an “auditor,” or a listener acting as therapist.

1970

Preoccupied with the recent Kent State Shootings and the unrest that spread to college campuses across the country, a frazzled President Nixon made an impromptu and bizarre visit to a group of anti-war protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon's account of the event differed greatly from that of the protesters, although both confirm it was a strange moment. The conversation lasted over an hour and both sides at least managed to explain their views on the war, although neither convinced the other. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, wrote in his diary later that day: "I am concerned about his condition ... he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly as a result." He described the day as "the weirdest day so far" of Nixon's presidency.

May 10

1869

The presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad–laying nearly 2,000 miles of track ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided.

1970

40 seconds into overtime of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, Boston Bruins star Bobby Orr slipped the winning goal past St. Louis Blues goaltender Glenn Hall. After scoring, Orr leapt into the air before landing flat and sliding into his teammates’ embrace. The famous celebration was immortalized by Boston Record-American photographer Ray Lussier, whose image of the soaring Orr is one of the most famous sports photographs of all time. In Boston sports lore, Orr's game-winner, which made the Bruins NHL champions, is known as "The Goal."

2002

Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who intermittently sold state secrets to Russia for two decades, received his sentencing for espionage: life in prison without the possibility of parole. Hanssen, who began working with Soviet military intelligence in 1979, was arrested after an ex-KGB officer revealed information to the FBI that identified him as a double agent. He took a plea bargain, which reduced the counts against him, guaranteed his wife a portion of his pension and ownership of their Virginia home and took the possibility of the death penalty off the table. Hanssen agreed to provide federal investigators with detailed accounts of his years as a spy. His espionage was described by the Department of Justice as "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."

May 11

1858

Minnesota entered the Union as the 32nd state. Known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Minnesota is the northern terminus of the Mississippi River’s traffic and the westernmost point of the inland waterway that extends through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. The Ojibwe and the Dakota were among the Native people who first made this land their home, and white settlement of the area began in 1820 with the establishment of Fort Snelling. The building of railroads and canals brought a land boom during the 1850s, and Minnesota’s population swelled from only 6,000 in 1850 to more than 150,000 by 1857. Minnesota’s “Twin Cities”—Minneapolis and St. Paul—grew out of Fort Snelling, the center of early U.S. settlement.

1973

The espionage trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in the "Pentagon Papers" case came to an end as Judge William M. Byrne dismissed all charges, citing government misconduct. The Pentagon Papers is a study of the history of U. S. decision-making in Indochina and of the Vietnam War. Fearing President Nixon would not initiate an end to the war, Ellsberg copied the 7000 page tome and leaked it to The New York Times. Government misconduct included wiretapping of defendants with their lawyers and even a break-in of the Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. When it became clear that the break-in was committed by employees of the White House pursuing a project launched by the President, the basis for a mistrial grew compelling.

1947

The B.F. Goodrich Company of Akron, Ohio, announced it had developed a tubeless tire, a technological innovation that would make automobiles safer and more efficient. The culmination of more than three years of engineering, Goodrich’s tubeless tire effectively eliminated the inner tube, trapping the pressurized air within the tire walls themselves. By reinforcing those walls, the company claimed, they were able to combine the puncture-sealing features of inner tubes with an improved ease of riding, high resistance to bruising and superior retention of air pressure. An executive of the United States Rubber Company called the general adoption of the tubeless tire “one of the most far-reaching changes ever to take place in the tire industry.”

May 12

  

1903

President Theodore Roosevelt’s trip to San Francisco was captured on moving-picture film, making him one of the first presidents to have an official activity recorded in that medium. A cameraman named H.J. Miles filmed the president while riding in a parade in his honor. The resulting short move was titled The President’s Carriage and was later played on “nickelodeons” in arcades across America. Roosevelt was the first president to take advantage of the impact motion pictures could have on the presidency. The photogenic president encouraged filmmakers to document his official duties and post-presidential personal activities until his death in 1919.

1963

The young and unknown Bob Dylan walked off the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, the country’s highest-rated variety show, after network censors rejected the song he planned on performing. The song was “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a satirical talking-blues number skewering the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and its tendency to see covert members of an international Communist conspiracy behind every tree. CBS lawyers feared a resulting defamation lawsuit, but Dylan would not change the lyrics or song. The story got widespread media attention in the days that followed, causing Ed Sullivan himself to denounce the network’s decision in published interviews. The free press may have done more for Dylan's career than any national-television appearance could have.

1975

The U.S. freighter Mayaguez and its 39-man crew was captured by gunboats of the Cambodian navy, which was controlled by communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge. President Gerald Ford called the seizure an “act of piracy” and promised swift action to rescue the captured Americans. Ford ordered the bombing of the Cambodian port where the gunboats had come from and sent Marines to attack the island of Koh Tang, where the prisoners were being held. In part, Ford’s aggressive attitude to the incident was a by-product of the American failure in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the military action was probably unnecessary. The Cambodian government was already in the process of releasing the crew of the Mayaguez and the ship. Forty-one American servicemen died, most of them in an accidental explosion during the attack.

May 13

1607

Some 100 English colonists arrived along the east bank of the James River in Virginia and founded Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. Dispatched by the London Company, the colonists sailed across the Atlantic aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. The first Colonial Council was chosen by King James I and included John Smith, whose interactions with Pochahontas would lead to many myths and tales. During the next two years, disease, starvation, and Native American attacks wiped out most of the colony, but the London Company continually sent more settlers and supplies. Jamestown finally became economically viable when they started planting tobacco in 1612. The settlement remains an archeological dig site to this day.

1846

The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of President James K. Polk's request to declare war on Mexico in a dispute over Texas. After nearly two years of often fierce fighting, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought peace. The Rio Grande became the southern boundary of Texas. Mexico ceded California and New Mexico to the United States. In return, the United States paid Mexico $15 million — some $480 million today — and agreed to settle all claims by U.S. citizens against the Mexican government. The war added millions of square miles to America’s Western frontier, at the cost of more than 13,000 U.S. lives. It also left a bitter political aftertaste, which persisted well into the latter years of the 19th century.

2004

Frasier, one of the most critically acclaimed comedy series of all time, aired its final episode to an audience of 33 million on NBC. A spinoff of Cheers, it continued the story of psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) who returned to his hometown, Seattle, as a radio show host. He reconnected with his father, Martin, a retired police officer, and his younger brother Niles, a fellow snobby psychiatrist. The show was known for its high level of comedic wit and won a record setting total of 37 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 11-year run. Grammer played Frasier Crane for 20 years on three different shows; Cheers, Frasier and Wings. A revival has been green-lit for 2022 on Paramount+

May 14

1804

One year after the United States doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition left St. Louis, Missouri, on a mission to explore the Northwest from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Even before the U.S. government concluded purchase negotiations with France, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, an army captain, to lead an expedition into what is now the U.S. Northwest. On this day, the “Corps of Discovery”—featuring approximately 45 men (although only an approximate 33 men would make the full journey)—left St. Louis for the American interior. The expedition returned nearly two and a half years later.

1973

Skylab, America’s first space station, was successfully launched into an orbit around the earth. Eleven days later, three astronauts made a rendezvous with Skylab, repairing a jammed solar panel and conducting scientific experiments during their 28-day stay aboard the space station. The American space station was a great success, safely housing three separate three-man crews for extended periods of time and exceeding pre-mission plans for scientific study. Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate faster than expected, owing to unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, the parts of the space station that did not burn up in the atmosphere came crashing down on Australia and into the Indian Ocean.

1998

Legendary singer, actor and show-business icon Frank Sinatra, also known as Ol' Blue Eyes, The Voice and Chairman of the Board, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles at the age of 82. Sinatra emerged from an Italian-American family in Hoboken, New Jersey to become the first modern superstar of popular music, with an entertainment career that spanned more than five decades. Sinatra also appeared in 58 films, winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1953. By the late 1950s, Sinatra had become the epitome of show-business success and glamorous, rough-edged masculinity. He even headed up his own entourage, known as the Rat Pack, which included Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.