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The Spy Who Kept the Cold War From Boiling Over

July 15, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

In 1984, U.S. spies monitoring the Soviet press found an alarming piece in a Russian magazine. It wasn’t an expose on officials in the Soviet Union or a worrying account about Cold War attitudes toward the United States. Rather, it was a recipe for coot, a small water bird that’s common in Eastern Europe.

For CIA officials, that meant trouble. They had long had an agreement with a Russian double agent they called TOP HAT—if he wanted to get in touch with them, he’d indicate it by publishing the recipe. Was TOP HAT in danger?

Dmitri Polyakov.

As it turns out, yes. Soon after, America’s most valuable spy, Dmitri Polyakov, fell off the map entirely. For nearly 25 years, the Soviet military intelligence officer had served as the United States’ most trusted resource on the Soviet military, providing reams of intelligence and becoming a legend in the process.

Polyakov’s documents and tips informed U.S. strategy in China during the Cold War and helped the U.S. military determine how to deal with Soviet-era weapons. And Polyakov was credited with keeping the Cold War from boiling over by giving the United States secrets that gave it an inside view of Soviet priorities.

But was Polyakov a double agent…or a triple one who kept the U.S. on an IV drip of false tips and misinformation? And what happened to him after his sudden disappearance?

Polyakov was born in what is now Ukraine in 1921. After serving in World War II, he was recruited by the GRU, the USSR’s military intelligence agency. He wasn’t the type of man anyone would peg as a spy—the son of a bookkeeper, he was an unassuming father who did carpentry projects in his spare time. On the surface, he was a dutiful worker and a reliable GRU asset. But as he rose through the ranks of the agency, following protocol and living a seemingly routine life, he began to work to undermine the USSR itself.

At the time, the GRU had agents all around the world, and was tasked with learning everything possible about American life, priorities, and military assets. The United States did the same thing with the USSR, but had a harder time because of the absolute secrecy that ruled Soviet intelligence.

Until Polyakov offered himself to the CIA as a double agent, that is. At the time, he was stationed at the Soviet Mission to …read more

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Why Was the Electoral College Created?

July 15, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

The Founding Fathers had to compromise when it came to devising a system to elect the president.

Five times in history, presidential candidates have won the popular vote but lost the

Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise

But determining exactly how many electors to assign to each state was another sticking point. Here the divide was between slave-owning and non-slave-owning states. It was the same issue that plagued the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives: should or shouldn’t the Founders include slaves in counting a state’s population?

In 1787, roughly 40 percent of people living in the Southern states were black slaves, who couldn’t vote. James Madison from Virginia—where slaves accounted for 60 percent of the population—knew that either a direct presidential election, or one with electors divvied up according to free white residents only, wouldn’t fly in the South.

“The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States,” said Madison, “and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”

The result was the controversial “three-fifths compromise,” in which black slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors and calculating federal taxes. The compromise ensured that Southern states would ratify the Constitution and gave Virginia, home to more than 200,000 slaves, a quarter (12) of the total electoral votes required to win the presidency (46).

READ MORE: 8 Founding Fathers and How They Helped Shape the Nation

Not only was the creation of the Electoral College in part a political workaround for the persistence of slavery in the United States, but almost none of the Founding Fathers’ assumptions about the electoral system proved true.

The signing of the Constitution of the United States at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

For starters, there were no political parties in 1787. The drafters of the Constitution assumed that electors would vote according to their individual discretion, not the dictates of a state or national party. Today, most electors are bound to vote for their party’s candidate.

And even more important, the Constitution says nothing about how the states should allot their electoral votes. The assumption was that each elector’s vote would be counted. But …read more

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Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge Took 14 Years—And Multiple Lives

July 15, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Horrific workplace accidents claimed a string of lives and left its designer dead and his son crippled.

Fourteen tons of fireworks illuminated the . Twelve people died as a result of the May 31, 1883, stampede on the Brooklyn Bridge.

…read more

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Sinéad O’Connor tears up a photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live"

July 12, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

On this day in 1992, Irish musician Sinéad O’Connor stuns the audience at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and viewers across the United States when she tears up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a performance on Saturday Night Live.

O’Connor surprised the SNL staff when she opted to sing an acapella version of the Bob Marley song “War” instead of a song from her recent album. She gave a stark, intense performance of the song, which decries “ignoble and unhappy regimes” that hold people in “sub-human bondage,” changing some of the lyrics to specifically mention child abuse. At the conclusion, O’Connor held a picture of the pope to the camera and tore it to pieces, saying “Fight the real enemy.”

The audience was silent throughout the performance, but NBC reported hearing from nearly a thousand angry callers over the next few days—as well as seven who called to support O’Connor. Madonna, something of a musical rival to O’Connor at the time, criticized her performance, telling The Irish Times: “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” The next week’s SNL guest, Joe Pesci, devoted his opening monologue to condemning O’Connor. Two weeks later, at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, O’Connor was shouted off stage.

Despite the outrage, O’Connor stood by her actions and clarified that she wanted to “face some very difficult truths,” namely the epidemic of child abuse in her native country.

It would be years before most Americans would grasp the extent of abuse in the Irish Catholic Church and connected institutions, but the topic was all too personal to O’Connor. As a teenager, the singer had spent 18 months in a Magdalene asylum (also known as a Magdalene laundry), an institution nominally meant to house wayward or promiscuous youth but which, in a number of cases, were sites of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of children at the hands of clergy.

The year after O’Connor’s SNL appearance, a mass grave was discovered on the grounds of one such institution, prompting an investigation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. As these abuses and thousands of other cases of child abuse across Ireland and the U.S. finally came to light in the 2000s, the real target of O’Connor’s shocking protest became increasingly clear.

…read more

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George Washington's Final Years—And Sudden, Agonizing Death

July 12, 2019 in History

By Alicia Kort

The nation’s first president left the office a healthy man, but then died from a sudden illness less than three years later.

George Washington’s final three years of life were not spent in typically relaxed retirement. Active until his last days at his Mount Vernon estate, Washington focused on making his plantation productive, getting his affairs in order and addressing a dilemma that had nagged at him for about a decade. It’s during these years that the nation’s first president made decisions that would cement his legacy.

Among the first of these decisions was to retire in the first place. On September 17, 1796, President Washington informed the American people in an article printed in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser that he would not be seeking a third presidential term. In what would become known as the Farewell Address, Washington instructed the new nation on how to carry on in his absence. After dedicating his life to the country’s first 20 years, Washington was ready to leave Philadelphia and live out his days managing his Mount Vernon estate.

But Washington never expected to live long. The Washington men had a tendency to perish before the age of 50, according to Joseph Ellis, author of His Excellency. Even shortly after the Revolutionary War had ended, at the age of 51, Washington was convinced he was in his twilight years.

“It shall be my part to hope for the best; as to see this Country happy whilst I am gliding down the stream of life in tranquil retirement is so much the wish of my Soul, that nothing on this side Elysium can be placed in competition with it,” Washington wrote in a letter to Henry Knox on February 25, 1787. His “tranquil retirement” was postponed nearly 10 years, however, as he was called back to serve as the country’s first president.

Finally at age 65, Washington left Philadelphia for Mount Vernon. He knew the end was near—although he promised friends that he’d live into the new century.

Washington’s Retirement at Mt. Vernon

Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located 13 miles south of what is now Washington, D.C., was built in 1734 by his father. Once Washington returned home, in addition to the nearly 11,000-square-foot mansion, he was responsible for five farms. In April 1797, these farms housed 123 horses, mules and asses, 680 cattle and sheep and …read more

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The U.S. Deported a Million of Its Own Citizens to Mexico During the Great Depression

July 12, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

In the 1930s, the Los Angeles Welfare Department decided to start deporting hospital patients of Mexican descent. One of the patients was a woman with leprosy who was driven just over the border and left in Mexicali, Mexico. Others had tuberculosis, paralysis, mental illness or problems related to old age, but that didn’t stop orderlies from carrying them out of medical institutions and sending them out of the country.

These were the “repatriation drives,” a series of informal raids that took place around the United States during the Great Depression. Local governments and officials deported up to 1.8 million people to Mexico, according to research conducted by Joseph Dunn, a former California state senator. Dunn estimates around 60 percent of these people were actually American citizens, many of them born in the U.S. to first-generation immigrants. For these citizens, deportation wasn’t “repatriation”—it was exile from their country.

The logic behind these raids was that Mexican immigrants were supposedly using resources and working jobs that should go to white Americans affected by the Great Depression. These deportations happened not only in border states like California and Texas, but also in places like Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and New York. In 2003, a Detroit-born U.S. citizen named José Lopez testified before a California legislative committee about his family’s 1931 deportation to Michoacán, a state in Western Mexico.

“I was five years old when we were forced to relocate,” he said. “I…bec[a]me very sick with whooping cough, and suffered very much, and it was difficult to breathe.” After both of his parents and one brother died in Mexico, he and his surviving siblings managed to return to the U.S. in 1945. “We were lucky to come back,” he said. “But there are others that were not so fortunate.”

The raids tore apart families and communities, leaving lasting trauma for Mexican Americans who remained in the U.S. as well. Former California State Senator Martha M. Escutia has said that growing up in East Los Angeles, her immigrant grandfather never even walked to the corner grocery store without his passport for fear of being stopped and deported. Even after he became a naturalized citizen, he continued to carry it with him.

READ MORE: The Largest Mass Deportation in American History

Relatives and friends wave goodbye to a train carrying 1,500 people being expelled from Los Angeles back to Mexico in 1931.

The deportation …read more

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Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia kills 19 U.S. airmen

July 12, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

On this day in 1996, a tanker truck loaded with 25,000 pounds of explosives rips through the U.S. Air Force military housing complex Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen and wounding nearly 500 others.

The terrorist attack that blew off much of the eight-story Building 131, leaving a crater 50 feet wide and 16 feet deep, was the deadliest attack against U.S. forces since the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 dead.

The bombers, later identified as members of the pro-Iran Islamic militant group Hezbollah, parked the truck near the towers that were home to 2,000 American military personnel who were assigned to the King Abdul Aziz Air Base to patrol southern Iraqi no-fly zones. They escaped before setting off the explosion.

Investigators found the attack had been planned for more than three years by members of the Saudi Hezbollah, with backing from Iran, as a way to force U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Hezbollah and Iran were found guilty by a U.S. federal court in 2006, and Iran was ordered to pay $254.5 million to survivors. That money has not been collected.

In 2001, 13 Saudis and one Lebanese man were indicted in the attack by the U.S., with Attorney General John Ashcroft stating “… the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah.” Charges included conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. employees, to use weapons of mass destruction and to destroy U.S. property, plus murder and bombing.

Iran denied involvement in the attack, and Saudi Arabia said they would not extradite those charged who were in their custody. None of the indicted have been brought to court.

Nearly 20 years later, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a key Hezbollah operative implicated in the attack, was captured and arrested in Beirut in 2015 and moved to Saudi Arabia for interrogation. In 2018, Iran was ordered to pay victims $104.7 million by a U.S. federal judge.

…read more

Source: HISTORY

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The Soviet Response to the Moon Landing? Denial There Was a Moon Race at All

July 11, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

You’ve probably heard of conspiracy theories that the moon landing was a hoax ( arguing, “Many of the same elements that characterized preparations for the Apollo moon landings also showed up in the Soviet program.” He also noted that Soviet cosmonauts during the 1960s spoke as though they were in a race with the U.S. to the moon.

“I can positively state that the Soviet Union will not be beaten by the United States in the race for a human being to go to the moon,” said cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in 1966, a year before his tragic death during reentry. “The U.S. has a timetable of ‘1969 plus X,’ but our timetable is ‘1969 plus X minus one’!”—i.e., the Soviets would make it the moon a year before the Americans.

Yet some conspiracy-minded Americans were swayed by the Soviet Union’s propaganda, and began to suspect the U.S. government had invented the competition in order to rationalize the enormous financial investment in NASA’s moon mission.

Unlike modern moon-landing deniers, many prominent moon-race deniers held influential positions in politics and media. Senator J. William Fulbright said in 1963 that “the probable truth is that we are in a race not with the Russians, but with ourselves.” And in a 1964 editorial titled “Debating the Moon Race,” The New York Times wrote, “There is still time to call off what has become a one-nation race.” On the moon landing’s fifth anniversary in July 1974, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite told America, “it turned out that the Russians were never in the race at all.”

Did the US Go to the Moon to Beat the Soviets? (TV-PG; 4:51)

In truth, the Soviets were in a moon race with the U.S. during the 1960s, and they were fairly confident they could beat the Americans because “they’d had all the firsts,” Oberg says: they had the first satellite, the first probe to land on the moon and the first man and woman in space. In fact, the Soviets thought the U.S. timetable for reaching the moon was just propaganda because it seemed too ambitious.

When Apollo 11 really did land there in 1969, just eight years after JFK’s announcement of the country’s intentions, Oberg says the Soviets “slowly came to realize they’d woken the sleeping giant; that they had driven the U.S. government insane enough to spend absolutely crazy amounts of money …read more

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President Carter calls for Olympics to be moved from Moscow

July 11, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

On January 20, 1980, in a letter to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and a television interview, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proposes that the 1980 Summer Olympics be moved from the planned host city, Moscow, if the Soviet Union failed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within a month.

“It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is,” Carter declared. He argued that continued aggressive action by the Soviets would endanger athletes and spectators who traveled to Moscow for the games, and declared that if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declined to move the competition, American athletes should boycott the games. Lord Killanin, president of the IOC, reacted quickly to Carter’s statement, saying it was impossible to move the games from Moscow.

After the IOC denied Carter’s request, the USOC later voted to boycott the Moscow games, a decision that Carter announced on March 21, 1980. The boycott devastated the hopes of many U.S. athletes, especially after Carter backed it up with the law, promising to revoke the passports of American athletes who traveled to the games in violation of the boycott. For his part, Killanin called the U.S. boycott a violation of the Olympic charter, pointing out that Moscow had been awarded the games in the mid-1970s as part of a binding contract–one that could only be broken if the Soviets breached their own responsibilities first.

The United States was one of some 60 countries that eventually boycotted the Moscow Olympics, though some countries that didn’t officially send teams took no action against individual athletes who chose to go. Among U.S. allies, Great Britain, Sweden, France and Italy sent teams. The Soviet Union dominated the other 80 participating nations, winning 195 medals (80 gold) in 1980, in one of the most lopsided Olympics ever. Four years later, the Soviets returned the slight with a boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, saying they were worried about the safety of their athletes given the strongly anti-Communist environment that existed in the United States. In an interesting contrast, Communist-led China decided to attend the games for the first time in 32 years, bringing the total number of participating countries to a record high 140.

…read more

Source: HISTORY

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Carter agrees to transfer Panama Canal to Panama

July 11, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

On this day in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signs a treaty that will give Panama control over the Panama Canal beginning in the year 2000. The treaty ended an agreement signed in 1904 between then-President Theodore Roosevelt and Panama, which gave the U.S. the right to build the canal and a renewable lease to control five miles of land along either side of it.

The desire for a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had a long history, beginning with the Spanish explorers of the 16th century. Before the canal was built, ships were required to travel around the treacherous Cape Horn of South America, a journey that frequently resulted in great loss of life and cargo. From 1869 to 1877, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant authorized no less than seven feasibility studies of a canal across the thin Panamanian isthmus. In 1881, a French consortium of investors hired Suez Canal designer Ferdinand deLesseps to build a canal through Panama. The French project was called off in 1888, however, after workers died by the thousands from disease and construction accidents.

In 1904, building a canal across Panama became a pet project of President Theodore Roosevelt; the effort was led by American engineer John Stevens. Although death from jungle diseases decreased with the implementation of an improved sanitation system, designed by Dr. William Gorgas, the project dragged on so long that Stevens quit in despair. In November 1906, in an attempt to boost flagging morale and dwindling Congressional support for the project, Roosevelt visited and posed for photographs at the site, sitting at the controls of an enormous earth-moving tractor.

In 1914, after 10 years, Roosevelt’s perseverance paid off; the 51-mile-long canal opened on August 15. The engineer who took over for Stevens quipped at the opening of the canal that “the real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.” The canal facilitated increased passenger travel and cargo shipments between nations around the world and U.S. control over the canal helped guarantee America’s status as an international power.

Transfer of ownership of the Panama Canal occurred peacefully as planned on December 31, 1999.

…read more

Source: HISTORY