1967: Harold Holt Disappearance


Today it would be unthinkable that the leader of a democratic nation would suddenly disappear without a trace, never to be seen again.  Yet that’s precisely what happened in the bizarre case of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt on December 17, 1967.

Holt left a group of associates to go swimming alone, at Chevoit Beach on Port Phillip Bay in southern Victoria, Australia.  The area near the city of Melbourne was known for dangerous currents and rip tides, but Holt was said to be a better-than-average swimmer.  Good judgement, apparently, was not one of his strengths, and he quickly disappeared beneath the waves.  A two-day search by Royal Australian Navy divers and local volunteers yielded nothing.  Holt was declared missing and presumed dead.

As might be expected, the vanishing of an international head of state led to a wide range of conspiracy theories.  One urban legend said Holt was abducted by aliens.  Another suggested he was a double agent for the Chinese government, plucked from the water by a submarine dispatched from Beijing.

Ironically, one can find an athletic center named in Holt’s honor near Melbourne.  Its centerpiece, and most popular feature, is an outdoor swimming pool.

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1960: Dogs In Space


There is hardly a more bizarre footnote in the early years of space exploration than the need to put animals on top of chemical-fueled rockets and send them into earth orbit.  It’s a fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union dared not risk sending a human being to test the still-unknown effect of space flight.  So, while engineers considered a variety of creatures, great and small, to become man’s trailblazer to the stars, they settled mostly on monkeys, and dogs.

Belka and Strelka emerged as the most celebrated canines to ride into outer space. They flew aboard the USSR’s Sputnik 5 on August 19,1960. Although the craft also carried 42 mice and a grey rabbit among other animals and plants, Belka’s and Strelka’s story was the only one to fire the imagination of the earth-bound public. They were hailed as the first creatures to come back from earth orbit alive, several months before a man would manage the feat.

Russian filmmakers dramatized the pair’s tale with a popular animated feature in 2010.  The real Strelka is immortalized in a completely different fashion, appearing in an exhibit of early orbital feats.

Soviet space scientists said they chose dogs as test animals because canines could stay in an enclosed space for a longer time.  Chimpanzees, on the other hand, were too restless.  French engineers took a different, smaller-scale approach.  Rats were their orbital creatures of choice.  It must gall guinea pigs that they were entirely overlooked in the annals of animal space pioneers.

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1965: End of the Aluminum Christmas Tree


One of the Christmas holiday symbols of the 1950s started its decline in popularity in the mid-1960s.  Families charting their course on the postwar New Frontier counted the aluminum Christmas tree as one of the trendy cultural items of the space age.  Strangely enough, a television cartoon helped blast it into eventual retro-chic status during Christmas 1965.

Manufacturers included aluminum in everything from Naval vessels to beer cans during mid-century, and so it wasn’t a stretch to create an artificial Christmas tree out of the material.  The Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin ranked as one of the top makers of aluminum trees, cranking out a million of them between 1959 and 1969.  You could buy one for $25 dollars, color wheel included.


Thirty years later, the aluminum Christmas tree had transformed into such a symbol of bad taste, that it could be purchased at yard sales for 25 cents. A wish to return to a more simple, authentic holiday led families to replace the metallic tree with real trees, or at least green ones.  The 1965 hit animated TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” saw it as a sign of the commercialization of Christmas at the cost of spirituality. In the show, the main character opts for a mere collection of bare branches nailed to a wooden support over a shiny, modern, aluminum tree.  By 1967, the once cutting-edge holiday decoration had all but disappeared.

Aluminum trees staged a comeback, and achieved iconic design status over the years. They may not be welcome in suburban living rooms anymore, but they are viewed as popular curiosities in places like the Childrens’ Museum of Indianapolis, IN, which displays an aluminum tree among such items as a steam engine and a dinosaur exhibit.

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1965: The Battle of Algiers


Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo sought to tell the story of the end of colonialism in 1965’s The Battle of Algiers.   What he ultimately found was a tale which inspires real-life insurgents — and their opponents — to this very day.

The Battle of Algiers dramatizes events in the Algerian War of Independence, which was actually fought in the 1950s.  It focuses on revolutionary cells waging guerilla warfare against the French military in the capital city of Algiers.  Pontecorvo used a documentary-style technique that was disturbingly realistic in its portrayal of violence.  French soldiers capture and torture terror suspects.  Algerian citizens retaliate by bombing soft targets like airline terminals and dance clubs.

Scenes from The Battle of Algiers,  from the exploding sidewalk cafes to the haunted eyes of the women planting IEDs at civilian gathering places, give a harrowing glimpse into the future of Belfast and Beirut, and more recently, Baghdad and Boston.

Modern filmmakers still stand amazed at authenticity of Pontecorvo’s spare, black-and-white action sequences. Would-be political revolutionaries of the 60s took note of guerilla tactics. So did military and security leaders.  A Pentagon panel screened the movie as recently as 2003, making the connection with the war in Iraq.

While the best-remembered war movies of the early 1960s told cautionary tales of world-wide conflict, The Battle of Algiers  went straight to the Arab street.  It eerily foreshadowed what armed conflict would really look like in the early 21st century.

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1963: JFK West Berlin Speech


Many experts on political speechmaking regard John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address as his best turn at the presidential podium. There’s also his challenge to the space race at Rice University in Houston, TX.  But if you’re looking for a sharp, compact, focused appeal to the people, there’s nothing better than JFK’s speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963.

Kennedy arrived in the divided city two years after the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall, encircling and isolating West Berlin and its population.  The barbed wire and concrete barricade became the symbol of Soviet oppression known as the Iron Curtain, despite claims from East German officials that it was built to keep Western spies in place.  Newsreels quickly filled with images of freedom-seeking Berlin residents risking their lives to cross the frontier amid hailstorms of machine gun bullets.

The Western powers in Europe pushed Kennedy to make a strong response to the Wall, and in the summer of 1963, West Berlin leaders set up a platform on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg for Kennedy’s appearance.  More than 450,000 people showed up for the JFK speech.

Staffers actually planned for Kennedy to deliver a large portion of the speech in German. Once it became clear JFK would be unable to meet such a herculean task in a short period of time, they limited his Germanic segment to “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and allowed him to only say it twice, near the beginning and at the end of the speech.  Utilizing the classic flourishes like anaphora, epistrophe and cadence, Kennedy delivered the rhetorical goods in dramatic fashion.

The line “Ich bin ein Berliner” gave rise to a ridiculous urban legend that suggests the literal translation of the phrase is “I am a jelly doughnut.”  In reality, the only Germans who referred to the pastry as a “Berliner” lived in the northern and western parts of the country.  While the span of decades reduced the iconic line to parody, JFK’s linguistic show of solidarity with the people of West Berlin resonated with people around the globe on that sunny afternoon in 1963.

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1964: Liston v. Clay Weigh In


An history-making heavyweight boxing match stood hours away from the opening bell when the two combatants weighed-in for the bout on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach.

Sonny Liston had emerged as one of the most-feared fighters in the ring. Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, was a young challenger known less for his boxing than for his non-stop verbal barrage. Liston’s legend included time served in prison for armed robbery, and a return to the pen for beating up a police officer. Simply getting a dirty look from Liston was enough to freeze most competitors in their tracks.

Into this intimidating scene strode Ali, a recent Olympic gold medalist who had simply survived against a left-hander in his last professional bout. Handicappers wrote Ali off as just another hopeful destined to be decimated by Liston’s sledgehammer attack. Forty-three of the 46 sportswriters polled at ringside picked Liston to win by a knockout.

Ali began a taunting campaign against Liston in the media, predicting his own knockout victory. His rhetoric reached its peak at an hysterical encounter at an otherwise routine pre-fight weigh-in. Either by reaction or by design, Ali’s entourage was forced to restrain him when Liston walked into the room. It was a chaotic scene that left even battle-hardened reporters amazed at its tension and barely-controlled hostility.

No one paid attention to the weight measurement for the two fighters (Liston 218 pounds, Ali 210). Doctors assessed Ali’s heart rate at 120 beats per minute, leading reporters to conclude that he was the one psyched-out by Liston’s simmering rage. One reporter promoted the rumor that Ali was looking for an air ticket to escape Miami before the fight started.

But by the start of the third round, it was clear that Liston was the fighter searching for a way out. Ali was quicker and more decisive than Liston, and turned to reporters at ringside at the end of the sixth round to proclaim himself the winner and new heavyweight champion. Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, leaving Ali to famously boast in his post-fight interview, how he “shook up the world.”

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1962: India China War

1962 INDO CHINA WAR 09pubdec2009

By now, we’re accustomed to the two Asian powerhouses of the 21st century, China and India, battling for regional economic domination.  But in 1962, these two nations actually fought each other in a brief war that ultimately changed the future trajectories of both countries.

Nepal, Bhutan, and the kingdom of Sikkim created a buffer zone between China and India, but they still shared a disputed border along the Himalayas. China began to flood troops into the region during the spring of 1962, and India quickly saw itself being outnumbered by 3-to-1 in manpower.  On October 3, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai traveled to New Delhi and told Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that there would be no war.  That promise lasted for exactly one week. Chinese troops overran their Indian counterparts at a mountain outpost called Yumtso La, and the armed hostilities were on.

The Chinese forces quickly claimed the high ground, and geographically-speaking, they weren’t kidding.  Combat raged at an altitude of 4,250 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level as winter approached.  Chinese soldiers rampaged over Indian defenses on two fronts, and then declared a cease-fire on November 20.

Bizarrely, China then withdrew from the region it had captured.  Its troops retreated behind a line which China insisted was the true border with India. The sense of humiliation in New Delhi was overwhelming, with the war emboldening rival Pakistan into violent border incursions of its own.  India reacted by building up its military might and, eventually, developing tactical nuclear weapons.

China, for its part, showed it was powerful enough to break from its traditional alliance with the Soviet Union (which backed India), and ultimately test-blasted its first atomic bomb two years after the Sino-India war.

Other events conspired to reduce the Asian military action to an historical footnote, when Fidel Castro began installing his own atomic arsenal in Cuba.  So during the week when the rest of the world was consumed with nuclear brinksmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis, two of the globe’s most populous countries had fought to a stalemate in the cold and snow at the top of the world.

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