This Day in History
On this day in 1876, Native American forces led by Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat the U.S. Army troops of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in a bloody battle near southern Montana’s Little Bighorn River.
Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, leaders of the Sioux tribe on the Great Plains, strongly resisted the mid-19th-century efforts of the U.S. government to confine their people to reservations. In 1875, after gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the U.S. Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the region. This betrayal led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations and join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River–which they called the Greasy Grass–in defiance of a U.S. War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.
In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers lined up against the camp and prepared to march. A force of 1,200 Native Americans turned back the first column on June 17. Five days later, General Alfred Terry ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25, Custer drew near the camp and decided to press on ahead rather than wait for reinforcements.
At mid-day, Custer’s 600 men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. Among the Native Americans, word quickly spread of the impending attack. The older Sitting Bull rallied the warriors and saw to the safety of the women and children, while Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the attackers head on. Despite Custer’s desperate attempts to regroup his men, they were quickly overwhelmed. Custer and some 200 men in his battalion were attacked by as many as 3,000 Native Americans; within an hour, Custer and every last one of his soldier were dead.
The Battle of Little Bighorn–also called Custer’s Last Stand–marked the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War. The gruesome fate of Custer and his men outraged many white Americans and confirmed their image of the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty. Meanwhile, the U.S. government increased its efforts to subdue the tribes. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations.
On this day in 1997, U.S. Air Force officials release a 231-page report dismissing long-standing claims of an alien spacecraft crash in Roswell, New Mexico, almost exactly 50 years earlier.
Public interest in Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs, began to flourish in the 1940s, when developments in space travel and the dawn of the atomic age caused many Americans to turn their attention to the skies. The town of Roswell, located near the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico, became a magnet for UFO believers due to the strange events of early July 1947, when ranch foreman W.W. Brazel found a strange, shiny material scattered over some of his land. He turned the material over to the sheriff, who passed it on to authorities at the nearby Air Force base. On July 8, Air Force officials announced they had recovered the wreckage of a “flying disk.” A local newspaper put the story on its front page, launching Roswell into the spotlight of the public’s UFO fascination.
The Air Force soon took back their story, however, saying the debris had been merely a downed weather balloon. Aside from die-hard UFO believers, or “ufologists,” public interest in the so-called “Roswell Incident” faded until the late 1970s, when claims surfaced that the military had invented the weather balloon story as a cover-up. Believers in this theory argued that officials had in fact retrieved several alien bodies from the crashed spacecraft, which were now stored in the mysterious Area 51 installation in Nevada. Seeking to dispel these suspicions, the Air Force issued a 1,000-page report in 1994 stating that the crashed object was actually a high-altitude weather balloon launched from a nearby missile test-site as part of a classified experiment aimed at monitoring the atmosphere in order to detect Soviet nuclear tests.
On July 24, 1997, barely a week before the extravagant 50th anniversary celebration of the incident, the Air Force released yet another report on the controversial subject. Titled “The Roswell Report, Case Closed,” the document stated definitively that there was no Pentagon evidence that any kind of life form was found in the Roswell area in connection with the reported UFO sightings, and that the “bodies” recovered were not aliens but dummies used in parachute tests conducted in the region. Any hopes that this would put an end to the cover-up debate were in vain, as furious ufologists rushed to point out the report’s inconsistencies. With conspiracy theories still alive and well on the Internet, Roswell continues to thrive as a tourist destination for UFO enthusiasts far and wide, hosting the annual UFO Encounter Festival each July and welcoming visitors year-round to its International UFO Museum and Research Center.
Mafia boss John Gotti, who was nicknamed the “Teflon Don” after escaping unscathed from several trials during the 1980s, is sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty on 14 accounts of conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering. Moments after his sentence was read in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, hundreds of Gotti’s supporters stormed the building and overturned and smashed cars before being forced back by police reinforcements.
Gotti, born and educated on the mean streets of New York City, became head of the powerful Gambino family after boss Paul Castellano was murdered outside a steakhouse in Manhattan in December 1985. The gang assassination, the first in three decades in New York, was organized by Gotti and his colleague Sammy “the Bull” Gravano. The Gambino family was known for its illegal narcotics operations, gambling activities, and car theft. During the next five years, Gotti rapidly expanded his criminal empire, and his family grew into the nation’s most powerful Mafia family. Despite wide publicity of his criminal activities, Gotti managed to avoid conviction several times, usually through witness intimidation. In 1990, however, he was indicted for conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Paul Castellano, and Gravano agreed to testify against him in a federal district court in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.
On April 2, 1992, John Gotti was found guilty on all counts and on June 23 was sentenced to multiple life terms without the possibility of parole.
While still imprisoned, Gotti died of throat cancer on June 10, 2002.
On this day in 1944, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the G.I. Bill, an unprecedented act of legislation designed to compensate returning members of the armed services–known as G.I.s–for their efforts in World War II.
As the last of its sweeping New Deal reforms, Roosevelt’s administration created the G.I. Bill–officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944–hoping to avoid a relapse into the Great Depression after the war ended. FDR particularly wanted to prevent a repeat of the Bonus March of 1932, when 20,000 unemployed veterans and their families flocked in protest to Washington. The American Legion, a veteran’s organization, successfully fought for many of the provisions included in the bill, which gave returning servicemen access to unemployment compensation, low-interest home and business loans, and–most importantly–funding for education.
By giving veterans money for tuition, living expenses, books, supplies and equipment, the G.I. Bill effectively transformed higher education in America. Before the war, college had been an option for only 10-15 percent of young Americans, and university campuses had become known as a haven for the most privileged classes. By 1947, in contrast, vets made up half of the nation’s college enrollment; three years later, nearly 500,000 Americans graduated from college, compared with 160,000 in 1939.
As educational institutions opened their doors to this diverse new group of students, overcrowded classrooms and residences prompted widespread improvement and expansion of university facilities and teaching staffs. An array of new vocational courses were developed across the country, including advanced training in education, agriculture, commerce, mining and fishing–skills that had previously been taught only informally.
The G.I. Bill became one of the major forces that drove an economic expansion in America that lasted 30 years after World War II. Only 20 percent of the money set aside for unemployment compensation under the bill was given out, as most veterans found jobs or pursued higher education. Low interest home loans enabled millions of American families to move out of urban centers and buy or build homes outside the city, changing the face of the suburbs. Over 50 years, the impact of the G.I. Bill was enormous, with 20 million veterans and dependents using the education benefits and 14 million home loans guaranteed, for a total federal investment of $67 billion. Among the millions of Americans who have taken advantage of the bill are former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, former Vice President Al Gore and entertainers Johnny Cash, Ed McMahon, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood.
New Hampshire becomes the ninth and last necessary state to ratify the Constitution of the United States, thereby making the document the law of the land.
By 1786, defects in the post-Revolutionary War Articles of Confederation were apparent, such as the lack of central authority over foreign and domestic commerce. Congress endorsed a plan to draft a new constitution, and on May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. On September 17, 1787, after three months of debate moderated by convention president George Washington, the new U.S. constitution, which created a strong federal government with an intricate system of checks and balances, was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present at the conclusion of the convention. As dictated by Article VII, the document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 states.
Beginning on December 7, five states–Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut–ratified it in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. In June, Virginia ratified the Constitution, followed by New York in July.
On September 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the Bill of Rights–and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments were ratified in 1791. In November 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Rhode Island, which opposed federal control of currency and was critical of compromise on the issue of slavery, resisted ratifying the Constitution until the U.S. government threatened to sever commercial relations with the state. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island voted by two votes to ratify the document, and the last of the original 13 colonies joined the United States. Today the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution in operation in the world.
On this day in 1975, Jaws, a film directed by Steven Spielberg that made countless viewers afraid to go into the water, opens in theaters. The story of a great white shark that terrorizes a New England resort town became an instant blockbuster and the highest-grossing film in movie history until it was bested by 1977’s Star Wars. Jaws was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category and took home three Oscars, for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound. The film, a breakthrough for director Spielberg, then 27 years old, spawned three sequels.
The film starred Roy Scheider as principled police chief Martin Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as a marine biologist named Matt Hooper and Robert Shaw as a grizzled fisherman called Quint. It was set in the fictional beach town of Amity, and based on a best-selling novel, released in 1973, by Peter Benchley. Subsequent water-themed Benchley bestsellers also made it to the big screen, including The Deep (1977).
With a budget of $12 million, Jaws was produced by the team of Richard Zanuck and David Brown, whose later credits include The Verdict (1982), Cocoon (1985) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Filming, which took place on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, was plagued by delays and technical difficulties, including malfunctioning mechanical sharks.
Jaws put now-famed director Steven Spielberg on the Hollywood map. Spielberg, largely self-taught in filmmaking, made his feature-length directorial debut with The Sugarland Express in 1974. The film was critically well-received but a box-office flop. Following the success of Jaws, Spielberg went on to become one of the most influential, iconic people in the film world, with such epics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). E.T., Jaws and Jurassic Park rank among the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time. In 1994, Spielberg formed DreamWorks SKG, with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The company has produced such hits as American Beauty (1999), Gladiator (2001) and Shrek (2001).
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.”
The day after the Senate followed the House of Representatives in voting to declare war against Great Britain, President James Madison signs the declaration into law–and the War of 1812 begins. The American war declaration, opposed by a sizable minority in Congress, had been called in response to the British economic blockade of France, the induction of American seaman into the British Royal Navy against their will, and the British support of hostile Indian tribes along the Great Lakes frontier. A faction of Congress known as the “War Hawks” had been advocating war with Britain for several years and had not hidden their hopes that a U.S. invasion of Canada might result in significant territorial land gains for the United States.
In the months after President Madison proclaimed the state of war to be in effect, American forces launched a three-point invasion of Canada, all of which were decisively unsuccessful. In 1814, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire collapsing, the British were able to allocate more military resources to the American war, and Washington, D.C., fell to the British in August. In Washington, British troops burned the White House, the Capitol, and other buildings in retaliation for the earlier burning of government buildings in Canada by U.S. soldiers.
In September, the tide of the war turned when Thomas Macdonough’s American naval force won a decisive victory at the Battle of Plattsburg Bay on Lake Champlain. The invading British army was forced to retreat back into Canada. The American victory on Lake Champlain led to the conclusion of U.S.-British peace negotiations in Belgium, and on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, formally ending the War of 1812. By the terms of the agreement, all conquered territory was to be returned, and a commission would be established to settle the boundary of the United States and Canada.
British forces assailing the Gulf Coast were not informed of the treaty in time, and on January 8, 1815, the U.S. forces under Andrew Jackson achieved the greatest American victory of the war at the Battle of New Orleans. The American public heard of Jackson’s victory and the Treaty of Ghent at approximately the same time, fostering a greater sentiment of self-confidence and shared identity throughout the young republic.
On this day in 1885, the dismantled Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of America, arrives in New York Harbor after being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in 350 individual pieces packed in more than 200 cases. The copper and iron statue, which was reassembled and dedicated the following year in a ceremony presided over by U.S. President Grover Cleveland, became known around the world as an enduring symbol of freedom and democracy.
Intended to commemorate the American Revolution and a century of friendship between the U.S. and France, the statue was designed by French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (who modeled it after his own mother), with assistance from engineer Gustave Eiffel, who later developed the iconic tower in Paris bearing his name. The statue was initially scheduled to be finished by 1876, the 100th anniversary of Americaâs Declaration of Independence; however, fundraising efforts, which included auctions, a lottery and boxing matches, took longer than anticipated, both in Europe and the U.S., where the statueâs pedestal was to be financed and constructed. The statue alone cost the French an estimated $250,000 (more than $5.5 million in todayâs money).
Finally completed in Paris in the summer of 1884, the statue, a robed female figure with an uplifted arm holding a torch, reached its new home on Bedloeâs Island in New York Harbor (between New York City and Hudson County, New Jersey) on June 17, 1885. After being reassembled, the 450,000-pound statue was officially dedicated on October 28, 1886, by President Cleveland, who said, âWe will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.â Standing more than 305 feet from the foundation of its pedestal to the top of its torch, the statue, dubbed âLiberty Enlightening the Worldâ by Bartholdi, was taller than any structure in New York City at the time. The statue was originally copper-colored, but over the years it underwent a natural color-change process called patination that produced its current greenish-blue hue.
In 1892, Ellis Island, located near Bedloeâs Island (which in 1956 was renamed Liberty Island), opened as Americaâs chief immigration station, and for the next 62 years Lady Liberty, as the statue is nicknamed, stood watch over the more than 12 million immigrants who sailed into New York Harbor. In 1903, a plaque inscribed with a sonnet titled âThe New Colossusâ by American poet Emma Lazarus, written 20 years earlier for a pedestal fundraiser, was placed on an interior wall of the pedestal. Lazarusâ now-famous words, which include âGive me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,â became symbolic of Americaâs vision of itself as a land of opportunity for immigrants.
Some 60 years after President Calvin Coolidge designated the statue a national monument in 1924, it underwent a multi-million-dollar restoration (which included a new torch and gold leaf-covered flame) and was rededicated by President Ronald Reagan on July 4, 1986, in a lavish celebration. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the statue was closed; its base, pedestal and observation deck re-opened in 2004, while its crown re-opened to the public on July 4, 2009. (For safety reasons, the torch has been closed to visitors since 1916, after an incident called the Black Tom explosions in which munitions-laden barges and railroad cars on the Jersey City, New Jersey, waterfront were blown up by German agents, causing damage to the nearby statue.)
Today, the Statue of Liberty is one of Americaâs most famous landmarks. Over the years, it has been the site of political rallies and protests (from suffragettes to anti-war activists), has been featured in numerous movies and countless photographs, and has received millions of visitors from around the globe.
On this day in 1884, the first roller coaster in America opens at Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York. Known as a switchback railway, it was the brainchild of LaMarcus Thompson, traveled approximately six miles per hour and cost a nickel to ride. The new entertainment was an instant success and by the turn of the century there were hundreds of roller coasters around the country.
Coney Island, a name believed to have come from the Dutch Konijn Eilandt, or Rabbit Island, is a tract of land along the Atlantic Ocean discovered by explorer Henry Hudson in 1609. The first hotel opened at Coney Island in 1829 and by the post-Civil War years, the area was an established resort with theaters, restaurants and a race track. Between 1897 and 1904, three amusement parks sprang up at Coney Island–Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase. By the 1920s, Coney Island was reachable by subway and summer crowds of a million people a day flocked there for rides, games, sideshows, the beach and the two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk, completed in 1923.
The hot dog is said to have been invented at Coney Island in 1867 by Charles Feltman. In 1916, a nickel hot dog stand called Nathan’s was opened by a former Feltman employee and went on to become a Coney Island institution and international franchise. Today, Nathan’s is famous not only for its hot dogs but its hot dog-eating contest, held each Fourth of July in Coney Island. In 2006, Takeru Kobayashi set a new record when he ate 53.75 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes.
Roller coasters and amusement parks experienced a decline during the Great Depression and World War II, when Americans had less cash to spend on entertainment. Finally, in 1955, the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, signaled the advent of the modern theme park and a rebirth of the roller coaster. Disneyland’s success sparked a wave of new parks and coasters. By the 1970s, parks were competing to create the most thrilling rides. In 2005, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, introduced the Kingda Ka roller coaster, the world’s tallest (at 456 feet) and fastest (at 128 mph).
By the mid-1960s, the major amusement parks at Coney Island had shut down and the area acquired a seedy image. Nevertheless, Coney Island remains a tourist attraction and home to the Cyclone, a wooden coaster that made its debut there in 1927. Capable of speeds of 60 mph and with an 85-foot drop, the Cyclone is one of the country’s oldest coasters in operation today. Though a real-estate developer recently announced the building of a new $1.5 billion year-round resort at Coney Island that will include a 4,000-foot-long roller coaster, an indoor water park and a multi-level carousel, the Cyclone’s owners have said they plan to keep the historic coaster open for business.
Following a revolt by the English nobility against his rule, King John puts his royal seal on the Magna Carta, or âGreat Charter.â The document, essentially a peace treaty between John and his barons, guaranteed that the king would respect feudal rights and privileges, uphold the freedom of the church, and maintain the nationâs laws. Although more a reactionary than a progressive document in its day, the Magna Carta was seen as a cornerstone in the development of democratic England by later generations.
John was enthroned as king of England following the death of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted, in 1199. King Johnâs reign was characterized by failure. He lost the duchy of Normandy to the French king and taxed the English nobility heavily to pay for his foreign misadventures. He quarreled with Pope Innocent III and sold church offices to build up the depleted royal coffers. Following the defeat of a campaign to regain Normandy in 1214, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, called on the disgruntled barons to demand a charter of liberties from the king.
In 1215, the barons rose up in rebellion against the kingâs abuse of feudal law and custom. John, faced with a superior force, had no choice but to give in to their demands. Earlier kings of England had granted concessions to their feudal barons, but these charters were vaguely worded and issued voluntarily. The document drawn up for John in June 1215, however, forced the king to make specific guarantees of the rights and privileges of his barons and the freedom of the church. On June 15, 1215, John met the barons at Runnymede on the Thames and set his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which after minor revision was formally issued as the Magna Carta.
The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses and dealt mainly with feudal concerns that had little impact outside 13th century England. However, the document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe, thus precluding any future claim to absolutism by the English monarch. Of greatest interest to later generations was clause 39, which stated that âno free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimisedâ¦except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.â This clause has been celebrated as an early guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus and inspired Englandâs Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).
In immediate terms, the Magna Carta was a failureâcivil war broke out the same year, and John ignored his obligations under the charter. Upon his death in 1216, however, the Magna Carta was reissued with some changes by his son, King Henry III, and then reissued again in 1217. That year, the rebellious barons were defeated by the kingâs forces. In 1225, Henry III voluntarily reissued the Magna Carta a third time, and it formally entered English statute law.
The Magna Carta has been subject to a great deal of historical exaggeration; it did not establish Parliament, as some have claimed, nor more than vaguely allude to the liberal democratic ideals of later centuries. However, as a symbol of the sovereignty of the rule of law, it was of fundamental importance to the constitutional development of England. Four original copies of the Magna Carta of 1215 exist today: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Museum.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress adopts a resolution stating that “the flag of the United States be thirteen alternate stripes red and white” and that “the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” The national flag, which became known as the “Stars and Stripes,” was based on the “Grand Union” flag, a banner carried by the Continental Army in 1776 that also consisted of 13 red and white stripes. According to legend, Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross designed the new canton for the Stars and Stripes, which consisted of a circle of 13 stars and a blue background, at the request of General George Washington. Historians have been unable to conclusively prove or disprove this legend.
With the entrance of new states into the United States after independence, new stripes and stars were added to represent new additions to the Union. In 1818, however, Congress enacted a law stipulating that the 13 original stripes be restored and that only stars be added to represent new states.
On June 14, 1877, the first Flag Day observance was held on the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes. As instructed by Congress, the U.S. flag was flown from all public buildings across the country. In the years after the first Flag Day, several states continued to observe the anniversary, and in 1949 Congress officially designated June 14 as Flag Day, a national day of observance.
On this day in 1966, the Supreme Court hands down its decision in Miranda v. Arizona, establishing the principle that all criminal suspects must be advised of their rights before interrogation. Now considered standard police procedure, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you,” has been heard so many times in television and film dramas that it has become almost cliche.
The roots of the Miranda decision go back to March 2, 1963, when an 18-year-old Phoenix woman told police that she had been abducted, driven to the desert and raped. Detectives questioning her story gave her a polygraph test, but the results were inconclusive. However, tracking the license plate number of a car that resembled that of her attacker’s brought police to Ernesto Miranda, who had a prior record as a peeping tom. Although the victim did not identify Miranda in a line-up, he was brought into police custody and interrogated. What happened next is disputed, but officers left the interrogation with a confession that Miranda later recanted, unaware that he didn’t have to say anything at all.
The confession was extremely brief and differed in certain respects from the victim’s account of the crime. However, Miranda’s appointed defense attorney (who was paid a grand total of $100) didn’t call any witnesses at the ensuing trial, and Miranda was convicted. While Miranda was in Arizona state prison, the American Civil Liberties Union took up his appeal, claiming that the confession was false and coerced.
The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but Miranda was retried and convicted in October 1966 anyway, despite the relative lack of evidence against him. Remaining in prison until 1972, Ernesto Miranda was later stabbed to death in the men’s room of a bar after a poker game in January 1976.
As a result of the case against Miranda, each and every person must now be informed of his or her rights when arrested.
On this day in 1987, in one of his most famous Cold War speeches, President Ronald Reagan challenges Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the repressive Communist era in a divided Germany.
In 1945, following Germany’s defeat in World War II, the nation’s capital, Berlin, was divided into four sections, with the Americans, British and French controlling the western region and the Soviets gaining power in the eastern region. In May 1949, the three western sections came together as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) being established in October of that same year. In 1952, the border between the two countries was closed and by the following year East Germans were prosecuted if they left their country without permission. In August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected by the East German government to prevent its citizens from escaping to the West. Between 1949 and the wall’s inception, it’s estimated that over 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West in search of a less repressive life.
With the wall as a backdrop, President Reagan declared to a West Berlin crowd in 1987, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.” He then called upon his Soviet counterpart: “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace–if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan then went on to ask Gorbachev to undertake serious arms reduction talks with the United States.
Most listeners at the time viewed Reagan’s speech as a dramatic appeal to Gorbachev to renew negotiations on nuclear arms reductions. It was also a reminder that despite the Soviet leader’s public statements about a new relationship with the West, the U.S. wanted to see action taken to lessen Cold War tensions. Happily for Berliners, though, the speech also foreshadowed events to come: Two years later, on November 9, 1989, joyful East and West Germans did break down the infamous barrier between East and West Berlin. Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990.
Gorbachev, who had been in office since 1985, stepped down from his post as Soviet leader in 1991. Reagan, who served two terms as president, from 1981 to 1989, died on June 5, 2004, at age 93.