In the final edition of This Week in History for the Fall 2021 semester, we will be taking a look at several pivotal moments that occurred over the past 100 years, that, for better or for worse, brought about immense changes in the political, social and cultural landscape. So let’s dive in!
On Dec. 7, 1941, 88 years ago, Pearl Harbor was bombed, bringing the United States into World War II.
Practically every American can tell you that the U.S. entered WWII because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and while that’s essentially true, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
While 1941 marked the beginning of WWII for the U.S., it was hardly the beginning of the entire conflict. Nazi Germany, allied with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, was marching across Europe, conquering Poland, Austria and several other nations of Central and Western Europe.
The Roosevelt administration was wary of Hitler’s regime, fostering sympathies for the French and British who stood against them. The American people, however, still grappling with the struggles of the Great Depression, were not interested in taking part in another lethal and costly war as they had two decades prior in WWI. While American companies were allowed to supply weapons to the British and French, the U.S. officially adopted an isolationist policy before 1941.
The tide of the war, however, was turning in favor of the Axis Powers. Germany invaded France, and the French government became a puppet of the Nazi Reich. Japan in the Pacific, decided to strike the U.S. as a warning to stay out of the war, yet inevitably gave the U.S. government the invitation it needed to formally enter the war.
At 7:55 a.m., more than 300 Japanese warplanes entered the skies above Hawaii, ferociously striking the Pacific naval fleet docked at Pearl Harbor. Since it was Sunday morning, many officers had been granted leave to attend religious services at Oahu, so remaining soldiers caught by surprise were left scrambling in defense. In total, 2,400 Americans died with an additional 1,400 wounded.
On the home front, public opinion shifted in favor of war and Americans listened closely as Roosevelt delivered his speech to Congress, urging for a declaration of war and declaring Dec. 7, “a day which will live in infamy.” Congress passed the war resolution hours later with only one dissenting vote. The U.S. was officially at war.
On Dec. 9, 1979, 42 years ago, in pandemic history, scientists officially declared smallpox eradicated.
Before COVID-19 ran amuck across the world, smallpox devastated human civilization for generations. Scientists believe traces of smallpox date back to a plague that swept through ancient Egypt, though smallpox reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries when it ravaged every kingdom and empire between Western Europe and East Asia. When Europeans invaded the Americas, part of the widespread genocide of the Indigenous people came at the hand of smallpox, which had never been introduced in the Western Hemisphere beforehand. With smallpox being the leading cause of death at the time, scientists were adamant to find a cure.
The eradication of smallpox came with the development of the smallpox vaccine in 1796. The 19th and 20th centuries saw a rapid decline in cases and beginning in the 1960s, the World Health Organization launched a campaign to end the disease worldwide.
Smallpox was relatively “easy” to eliminate, as it can only live within humans. Since many wealthy nations mandated the vaccination of its people, doctors focused efforts in pockets of the developing world where smallpox was still active. Once such areas were vaccinated and treated, no more cases meant future generations would not have to deal with such a disease. The eradication of smallpox is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine.
On Dec. 8, 1980, 41 years ago, John Lennon was shot and killed by a fan in New York City.
At the age of 40, the legendary former member of the Beatles was shot four times while entering his luxury Upper West Side apartment building by obsessed fan Mark David Chapman. Despite being rushed to the hospital, Lennon died in the ambulance from blood loss, ending his newfound domestic life with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their son, Sean.
His assassin voluntarily stayed at the scene of the crime following Lennon’s murder, being deemed borderline psychotic by psychiatrists. Despite being instructed to plead insanity, Chapman pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He is behind bars to this day.
While 1980 marked the end of Lennon’s life, his music and lyrics live on, changing the face of popular music and defining a generation. “Strawberry Fields” in Central Park stands as a memorial to him across the street of the site of his assassination.
On Dec. 9, 1992, 29 years ago, Prince Charles and Princess Diana publicly announced their separation.
While Beatlemania dominated the English-speaking world in the 1960s, Dianamania took the world by storm in the 1980s and 90s. Prince Charles may have been the heir to the throne, but Princess Diana had the love and affection of every Anglophile on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fans of “The Crown” (if you couldn’t tell by now, “The Crown” is one of my favorite shows) know all too well that the marriage of Charles and Diana was doomed from the start. Charles was in love with another woman and Diana hated being cut off from the outside world living in the palace. Though their wedding was viewed by more than a billion people worldwide, the fairy tale came to a grinding halt with their formal separation and their subsequent divorce in August 1996.
Well, that’s all from me for 2021! See you in 2022 for more exciting deep dives into the wonderful world of history. And since I had such a fun time revealing the history of our most cherished holiday traditions in the Halloween and Thanksgiving editions, stay tuned for a This Week in History spin-off in this Friday’s issue as I take a look into the vast history of all the deep-rooted traditions the holiday season has to offer. Until then, happy holidays and see you next year!