June, 19 History In Review

1953

Rosenbergs executed

On this day in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, are executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Both refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence right up to the time of their deaths, by the electric chair. The Rosenbergs were the first U.S. citizens to be convicted and executed for espionage during peacetime and their case remains controversial to this day.

Julius Rosenberg was an engineer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps who was born in New York on May 12, 1918. His wife, born Ethel Greenglass, also in New York, on September 28, 1915, worked as a secretary. The couple met as members of the Young Communist League, married in 1939 and had two sons. Julius Rosenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage on June 17, 1950, and accused of heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Ethel was arrested two months later. The Rosenbergs were implicated by David Greenglass, Ethel’s younger brother and a former army sergeant and machinist at Los Alamos, the secret atomic bomb lab in New Mexico. Greenglass, who himself had confessed to providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets through an intermediary, testified against his sister and brother-in-law in court. He later served 10 years in prison.

The Rosenbergs vigorously protested their innocence, but after a brief trial that began on March 6, 1951, and attracted much media attention, the couple was convicted. On April 5, 1951, a judge sentenced them to death and the pair was taken to Sing Sing to await execution.

During the next two years, the couple became the subject of both national and international debate. Some people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anti-communist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Many Americans, however, believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly. They agreed with President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he issued a statement declining to invoke executive clemency for the pair. He stated, “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”

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June, 6 History In Review

1944

D-Day

Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.

With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.

On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.

By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.

For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.

Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe

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June, 5 History In Review

2004

Ronald Reagan dies

On this day in 2004, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, dies, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan, who was also a well-known actor and served as governor of California, was a popular president known for restoring American confidence after the problems of the 1970s and helping to defeat communism.

Born on February 6, 1911, Reagan, who was nicknamed Dutch as a youngster, was born and raised in several small towns in Illinois. Despite a disadvantaged upbringing—his father abused alcohol and had trouble holding jobs—Reagan was a popular and outgoing student. He served as president of his high school’s student council and stood out at football, basketball, and track, as well as acting in several plays. During the summer, he worked as a lifeguard, reportedly saving 77 people over six years.

After high school, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, a small, Christian, liberal-arts school in Eureka, Illinois, from which he received a scholarship. There, he continued to show athletic prowess, playing football and swimming, as well as honing his skills in his two future pursuits: acting and politics. Reagan—then a Democrat—served as Eureka’s student-body president and acted in the college’s theater productions.

In 1932, Reagan graduated from Eureka with a degree in sociology and economics and found a job as a radio sports announcer. He worked in radio for five years, before going for a screen test in Los Angeles while in California to cover the Chicago Cubs’ spring-training camp. Warner Brothers offered the future president a seven-year contract but asked him to use his given name Ronald instead of Dutch in the movies.

Although he never became an A-list star, Reagan spent 20 years in Hollywood and appeared in more than 50 films and several television programs. His oft-used nickname as president, The Gipper, came from his turn playing Notre Dame football star George The Gipper Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American. In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman. The couple had two children: Maureen, in 1941, and Michael, whom they adopted in 1945. Reagan and Wyman divorced in 1949.

Although Reagan did not serve combat duty in World War II because of his poor eyesight, he began active duty in 1942 and made training films for the military until his discharge in 1945. Politically, it was during the 1940s that Reagan gradually became more conservative and also became involved in the country’s burgeoning anti-communist movement. In 1947, he testified to the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), naming elements in Hollywood that he felt were allied with communist causes. Later that year, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a position he held from 1947 to 1952 and again from 1959 to 1960.

Through the course of his work with SAG, Reagan met Nancy Davis, an actress who looked to Reagan for help when she was incorrectly labeled a communist sympathizer. As he had done for others, Reagan assisted her in clearing her name. The couple also began a lifelong romance and was married in 1952. Their two children, Patricia and Ronald, were born in 1953 and 1959 respectively.

After registering as a Republican in 1962 and campaigning for Barry Goldwater in his failed 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan decided to run for governor of California in 1966. He won handily, despite his lack of experience. His plan for California foreshadowed the one he ultimately brought with him to the national stage: lower taxes, cuts in spending, and an end to big government. Despite the student protests and forced tax hikes that occurred during his first term, he ran again and was easily re-elected in 1970. Just 18 months later, he announced his unsuccessful candidacy for president at the Republican National Convention. In 1975, he left office in California and ran again for the Republican presidential nomination, losing in a close race to Gerald Ford.

In 1980, Reagan ran yet again and won the nomination easily, choosing George H.W. Bush as his running mate. Running on a platform of a return to American values, smaller government, a stronger military, and tax cuts, Reagan appealed to an American public frustrated with inflation and foreign policy problems, like the Iranian hostage crisis. He won, and at age 69, became the oldest man to be elected to the office. A talented and practiced public speaker, Reagan’s personal charm, warm manner, and optimistic message endeared him to many Americans. He was re-elected by a landslide in 1984.

Just 69 days after taking office, Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley after giving a speech at a hotel about one mile from the White House. After surgery to remove the bullet, which had lodged near his heart, he recovered quickly, which added to his image as a strong leader. Throughout his two terms in office, Reagan pursued his trademark economic program, Reaganomics—a supply-side economics theory that involved drastic cuts to both taxes and spending. At the time, and increasingly in the intervening years since his presidency, Reagan drew criticism for ruthlessly slashing social programs while building up a huge deficit with massive military expenditures. He is also criticized for his partiality to business interests, removing many regulations on big business that he felt were impeding growth, as well as authorizing the firing of striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

It was his campaign to end the Cold War, though, that defined the Reagan presidency for many Americans. His plan was to use an unprecedented military buildup to negotiate arms-reduction treaties from a position of strength. During a visit to Germany, he famously urged then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. By 1991, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union Reagan had once referred to as an evil empire was no more. While many credit Reagan for this historic turn of events, and it is certain he played a significant role, others point to internal problems in the Soviet Union for its ultimate demise.

Reagan’s foreign policy included military interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, and Libya, which had mixed results. He is also known for backing anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua and authorizing a secret CIA military operation there in the early 1980s. This led to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which it was found that illegal arms sales to Iran were used to fund the administration’s support of Nicaragua’s Contra rebels. No evidence was ever found to suggest that Reagan himself or Vice President Bush broke the law. Despite the scandal, George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan to the presidency in 1988.

Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan left the Oval Office as one of the most popular presidents in history, retiring to his much-loved California ranch, Rancho del Cielo. His announcement in 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease was greeted with great sadness by many across the country. He wrote, in an open letter to the American people, I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

He lived out the rest of his days on the ranch, with his wife Nancy, who remained devoted to him to the end, by his side. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.