Today we find some extremely consequential events appearing on our calendar of the past. These include one earthshaking international event and two overwhelming domestic events. The international event provided for the eventual declaration of this day as “International Holocaust Remembrance Day” by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 in 2005 in memory of those Jews exterminated in the Nazi death camps. What was the event? Today, in 1945, the Russian Army, in its march across southern Poland, entered a concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and found the remains of dead Jewish bodies in piles waiting for the crematoria.
Auschwitz was actually a complex of three camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the main death camp while the others were work camp in which the Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and other “Undesirables” were starved, worked hard, and subject to medical experiments by madmen like Dr. Mengele. As the railcars of “deportees” entered the camps, they were sorted into those who were to go directly to the death chambers (women, children, and elderly) and those who would go to the work camps to be worked to death. The exterminations camps were part of Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” that would efficiently eliminate the Jewish population from the Third Reich. This pogrom was under the supervision of the Minister of the Interior, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Those destined for immediate extermination were undressed, herded into showers, and killed with poison gas. Their bodies would then be taken to the crematoria for “disposal.” These camps, along with others throughout Eastern Europe and Germany were a secret to outsiders until the Red Army entered Auschwitz. The world was shocked!
This day also witnessed another international event that had importance to the United States, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. These Accords were to formally ended the Vietnam War between the North Vietnamese (and their proxy in the the south, the Viet Cong) and the U.S. Vietnam became a communist state after these Accords, our removed our troops and had our POWs released. The actual end of the conflict did not occur until two years later, however. The troops and POWs returned to an America that was severely conflicted over a war that seemed to lack direction or a will to win.
Our involvement started during the Eisenhower administration after the French forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The country was partitioned into a Northern (Communist) Regime and a Southern (Democratic) Regime. Free elections were to be held in the South in 1955, but were cancelled by the U.S. when it appeared that the communists would win. Our troops were involved there started as military advisors and then in the summer of 1965 escalated into active involvement after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. We apparently didn’t learn our lesson about fighting a war of independence for a goal (Democracy) that the native population of a country didn’t necessarily want. We were bogged down in jungle fighting with guerrillas defending their homeland; the lesson from Vietnam was apparently not learned by our leaders when President George W. Bush sent our troops into Iraq and Afghanistan to install democratic form of government.
On the domestic scene we have two incidents that “grab” our attention. The one of more immediate importance to our contemporary generations is the Tragedy of Apollo 1 in 1967. Our nation was challenged by our new, young President, John F. Kennedy, in 1961 to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade of the 1960s. My generation took this challenge to heart and set off on the quest to conquer space. We received a wake-up call in 1957 when the Soviet Union sent into Earth Orbit an artificial satellite, Sputnik I. When Kennedy gave us his challenge, no man had escaped the Earth atmosphere, although some of our test pilots had approached that goal. We launched our first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into Sub-Orbital Space in a Mercury capsule (the Freedom 7) in 1961. We launched a pair of astronauts, “Gus” Grissom and John Young, in a Gemini capsule in 1963 into Earth Orbit. We were making progress and learning about the mechanics and technologies necessary to send a set of men to the moon. In 1967, we were ready to launch three astronauts on the first test of a new capsule, the Apollo capsule, using the Saturn rocket, whose first stage was based heavily on the design of the German V2 developed by Wehrner von Braun for the Nazis. The Apollo 1 was to launch “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee; while they were undergoing a pre-flight test of the capsule environment, a spark in the capsule ignited the pure oxygen environment and these three astronauts were lost.
This event would require adjustments to the capsule environment and other launch procedures. Eventually, we accomplished the goal set for our nation by the former President John F. Kennedy. The Apollo 11 would carry three astronauts into space; the “lucky” astronauts were Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Jim Lovell to the moon in 1969. On July 20, 1969, while many of us sat in the comfort of our living rooms our TVs allowed us to watch as Neil Armstrong emerged from the Lunar Module and stepped onto the moon for the first time. We thrilled when he spoke those famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” We had mastered the technologies, engineering, and practical problems to carry out this dream of man. Ironically, the details of the launch of the Apollo 11 and that of the science fiction account of Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon in most respects; the one major point of departure was that Verne had his astronauts launched by a large gun instead of on a rocket; rockets were merely fireworks in Verne’s day!
Another significant event on this day, one that has probably had more long term impact upon our nation and society, was a speech given by a young, backwoods lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, to a group of young men at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Missouri in 1838. The future president of the U.S. would emphasize to these young men the importance of the rule of law in our country. This emphasis upon the law would be applied by President Lincoln to even those states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. Lincoln still considered them as part of the Union and directed his generals during our Civil War with that guiding principle still in mind. When he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863, he freed the slaves in those seceding states by executive order; the African Americans held as slaves in those states were freed from their bondage.
When General Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, he did so without the need of a treaty — the prodigal son had returned home. When his troops surrendered, they were permitted to keep their arms since they were still citizens of this nation. They were under the rule of law. We all know that the Civil War did not end all injustices to minority groups in this country. Women still were considered the “property” of their husbands and did not have the vote or equal rights with men. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and the Native American Indians would not realize their full role as Americans until another one hundred years had passed. But the rule of law still prevailed and full rights were eventually gained by all citizens under the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. The message the young Abraham Lincoln delivered this day in 1838 still rings true — we are all covered by the rule of law!
In summation, this is a day that has witnessed a great deal of the brutality of man against his/her fellow man. We have witnessed the discrimination of slavery and the women in our society. We have witnessed also on this day the brutality of man against man when ideologies clash, such as in Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was brought into its clearest focus by the revelation of the Nazi Holocaust and death camps such as Auschwitz that were designed to carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution” to attempt the total genocide of the Jews. These Jews served as scapegoats for the perceived economic woes of Germany, but they might as well have been the African American slaves in the South, the American Indians removed from their ancestral lands in this country and, more recently, the Muslim minorities in the former Yugoslavian states. Discrimination and inhumanity has been carried out against women for centuries, depriving them of any property rights because they, themselves, were considered the property of their fathers or husbands. We are making progress, but we need to always remain vigilant to the abuses of power.
We now will proceed to examine some of the events that are associated with day in history... GLB
These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2012 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
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