Today in History: A President Lies

And later admits it
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was definitely not happy about President Truman's lie.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was definitely not happy about President Truman’s lie. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

May 5, 1960: President Eisenhower denied that a U.S. spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower was lying. The Soviets produced the U.S. pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower admitted lying about the incident. At a later Paris peace conference with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Eisenhower refused to apologize. Khrushchev stormed out of the meeting and the Cold War got colder.

Francis Gary Powers — the U-2 spy pilot shot down by the Soviets — was held until 1962, when he was traded for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Powers later became a traffic reporter for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles; he died in a 1977 helicopter crash. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

May 5, 1962: President Kennedy congratulated the first American in space — Alan Shepard — after his 15-minute mission aboard his Freedom 7 capsule. The capsule, powered by a Redstone missile, propelled Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles. During his 15-minute mission (Shepard did not go into orbit), he was able to see the curvature of the Earth, and described a view never seen by any American before. On May 8, Shepard traveled to the White House to receive a NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy. Three weeks later, JFK would announce to a joint session of Congress the goal of sending an American safely to the Moon by the end of the decade.

May 5, 1985: President Reagan angered Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors by visiting a German cemetery — Bitburg — where Hitler’s SS troops were buried. Before going to Bitburg, Reagan also visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in which victims of Nazi persecution, mostly Jews, were exterminated. At Bergen-Belsen, Reagan stood by a marker identifying a mass grave of 50,000 bodies and said solemnly, “Here they lie. Never to hope. Never to pray. Never to love. Never to heal. Never to laugh. Never to cry.”

Quote of the Day

“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” -Harry Truman

Today in history: An attempt to overhaul Social Security

In 2001, President Bush formed a commission to study the efficacy of the entitlement program
George W. Bush holds one of his last news conferences in January 2009.
George W. Bush holds one of his last news conferences in January 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

May 2, 2001: Warning that benefits might have to be cut and taxes raised to shore up Social Security, President Bush formed a commission to study the entitlement program. Among the ideas discussed by his panel: Partially privatizing Social Security by giving younger workers the option of investing a portion of their funds in the stock market, which, it was believed, would generate higher returns. The partial privatization idea was a big part of his 2005 State of the Union address; and although Bush spent considerable time and effort pushing for his idea, it didn’t go anywhere. Bush later said that encouraging debate on Social Security was one of the biggest achievements of his presidency.

Quote of the day

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” — John F. Kennedy

Today in History: (Allegedly) – The Death of Osama bin Laden

Three years ago, President Obama announced that the leader of al Qaeda had been killed
President Obama announces to the world on May 1, 2011 that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military in a compound near Islamabad, Pakistan.
President Obama announces to the world on May 1, 2011 that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military in a compound near Islamabad, Pakistan. Getty

May 1, 1931: With the push of a button, President Hoover dedicated the Empire State Building. Hoover wasn’t in New York, he was at the White House and merely pushed a symbolic button. The Empire State Building, 102 stories and 1,250 feet high, was the world’s tallest structure — and took just one year and $40 million to build. Constructed during the depths of the Great Depression, it gave New York and the nation a renewed sense of pride.

May 1, 1970: Student protests erupted after President Nixon announced U.S. troops were moving into Cambodia — a neutral country — to pursue the Vietcong.

May 1, 2003: With a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him, President Bush said “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” The war would continue for seven-and-a-half more years, ultimately claiming the lives of 4,486 Americans — and countless Iraqis.

May 1, 2011: President Obama announced that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden — the leader of al Qaeda and perpetrator of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Operation Neptune Spear, as the special forces operation that killed bin Laden was called, was among the most daring military missions in U.S. history. Months in the planning, the operation — conducted by Navy SEALS — was carried out in a Central Intelligence Agency-less mission. The raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was launched from Afghanistan on a moonless night; after the raid, U.S. forces took bin Laden’s body to Afghanistan for identification, then buried it at sea within 24 hours of his death.

Quote of the day

“To those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror, justice has been done.” — Barack Obama

Today in History: The First Televised President

Smile for the cameras, FDR!
From his car, President Franklin D. Roosevelt waves to the crowds at the opening of the World Fair in 1939.
From his car, President Franklin D. Roosevelt waves to the crowds at the opening of the World Fair in 1939. Fox Photos/Getty Images

April 30, 1789: At New York’s Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States. Washington was a reluctant president. At the age of 57, he wanted to stay retired. But he feared political factions were tearing the nation apart, and agreed to serve. He would serve two terms in office before retiring for good in 1798. New York City, was of course, the capital of the United States at that time.

April 30, 1939: Attending the New York World’s Fair, Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to appear on TV.

April 30, 1970: President Richard Nixon announced that U.S. troops were invading Cambodia — used by North Vietnam to wage war on South Vietnam. Nixon’s public announcement came after a year of Cambodian bombing that the administration tried to keep quiet. The invasion of Cambodia widened the public split over Vietnam. Some 4 million students protested; four were killed at Ohio’s Kent State University.

Quote of the day

“Those who trust to chance must abide by the results of chance.” -Calvin Coolidge

Today in History: A Humiliating End to the Vietnam War

In 1975, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in
Vietnamese civilians crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy in April 1975.
Vietnamese civilians crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy in April 1975. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

April 28, 1758: James Monroe born. He was the fifth president, serving between 1817 and 1825.

Born in Virginia, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, fought with distinction during the Revolution, then practiced law. In 1790, he was elected to the Senate. He served until 1794, when he became Minister to France for two years. His experience in Paris came in handy when he later, with Robert R. Livingston, helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.

Monroe, an ambitious man, sought the presidency in 1816. With the support of President James Madison, he won and was easily re-elected in 1820.

Monroe made unusually strong Cabinet choices, naming a Southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. Only Henry Clay’s refusal kept Monroe from adding an outstanding Westerner.

Early in his administration, Monroe supported nationalist policies. This eventually resulted in regional division around the country. This, combined with an economic depression, created problems for Monroe. Then, in 1819, the Missouri Territory applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. This effort failed, and an amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri sparked two years of bitter congressional debate.

The result of this was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was decided that Missouri would join the Union as a slave state, while Maine would join as a free state. Furthermore, slavery would be barred north and west of Missouri forever.

But the one thing that Monroe will be most remembered for dealt with foreign affairs. Fearful that governments in Europe might try to aid Spain in winning back its former Latin American colonies, Monroe — with the help of the man who would succeed him in the White House, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams — recognized Latin American nations as independent countries and opened U.S. diplomatic missions in them.

Great Britain — which had just fought a war with the U.S. less than a decade earlier — counseled Monroe to declare a “hands off” policy toward Latin America, and ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison urged Monroe to accept the offer. But Secretary of State Adams was cautious. He advised the president: “It would be more candid … to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Monroe agreed with Adams. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. “The American continents,” he stated, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Power.” Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831, this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

In the two centuries since, the Monroe Doctrine has been invoked by multiple presidents as a key part of American foreign policy. John F. Kennedy, for example cited it during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

April 28, 1975: President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in. It was a humiliating end to the Vietnam War, in which the United States formally fought from 1964 (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to 1973 (Paris Peace Accord). Vietnam, once the longest war in American history, has since been surpassed by two wars fought simultaneously: Afghanistan, which began Oct. 2001, and the Iraq war, which ran from March 19, 2003 to December 18, 2011.

Quote of the Day

“The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.” -James Monroe

Today in History: The Death of a President

On this day in 1994, President Nixon died at 81
Nixon announces his resignation on national television on Aug. 8, 1974.
Nixon announces his resignation on national television on Aug. 8, 1974. Pierre Manevy/Express/Getty Images

April 22, 1793: President George Washington declared the U.S. would remain neutral in the face of emerging conflicts in Europe. He warned that any citizen who tried to undermine this would be prosecuted.

April 22, 1994: Richard Nixon died. He was the 37th president, serving between 1969 and 1974. In 1968, Nixon promised to “bring us together” as a nation. But Watergate helped tear it apart; he became the only president to resign. Although Nixon is remembered for Watergate, he had notable successes both at home and abroad. He reached out to China, embarked on “détente” with the Soviet Union, and ended the Vietnam war.

At home, Nixon exempted 9 million low-income citizens from paying taxes, while raising taxes on the rich. He sharply boosted Social Security benefits, created the Environmental Protection Agency, and fought for cleaner air and water.

Nixon was one of just two men to run on national tickets five times. The other was Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR ran for VP in ’20 and POTUS in ’32, ’36, ’40, and ’44. Nixon ran for VP in ’52 and ’56, and POTUS in ’60, ’68, and ’72. Both Nixon and FDR won four of their five respective national races. When FDR ran for VP in 1920, he lost. Nixon, when he ran for POTUS in 1960, lost.

Quote of the day

“I let the American people down.” — Richard M. Nixon

Today in History: A Presidential Funeral Train Leaves D.C.

Lincoln’s body traveled 1,654 miles over 12 days on its journey home
Lincoln's funeral train in Philadelphia, on its journey from D.C. to Springfield.
Lincoln’s funeral train in Philadelphia, on its journey from D.C. to Springfield. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 21, 1865: Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington; he would be buried in the late president’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., 13 days later. The train traveled 1,654 miles over 12 days, making numerous stops so grieving citizens could pay their respects. The route retraced the path Lincoln took when he came to Washington as president-elect in 1861. The late president’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln remained at the White House because she was too distraught to make the trip; she returned to Illinois about a month later. Lincoln was interred at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. The site of the Lincoln Tomb, now owned and managed as a state historic site, is marked by a 117-foot-tall granite obelisk surmounted with several bronze statues of Lincoln, constructed by 1874. Mary Todd Lincoln and three of his four sons are also buried there. Lincoln’s most famous son, Robert Todd Lincoln, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

Quote of the Day
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” –Abraham Lincoln

Today in History: JFK’s Worst Foreign Policy Blunder

The Bay of Pigs was not Kennedy’s finest moment
Castro's soldiers at Playa de Giron, Cuba, after thwarting the ill-fated U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Castro’s soldiers at Playa de Giron, Cuba, after thwarting the ill-fated U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.Graf/Getty Images

April 17, 1961: Arguably the worst foreign policy mistake of the Kennedy era began: Operation Zapata, the attempt to oust Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro through a failed CIA-backed military invasion of Cuba. Operation Zapata — better known as the Bay of Pigs — was planned during the Eisenhower administration, but JFK gave it the final go ahead. Both the White House and CIA blamed each other for the debacle. Some historians think one lesson JFK learned from the Bay of Pigs was to be skeptical of military advice — a lesson that came in handy during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year-and-a-half later.
Quote of the day

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” — John F. Kennedy

Today in History: A Reluctant Politician Prepares to Become President

George Washington wasn’t exactly thrilled about becoming America’s first president…
This portrait features George Washington at Princeton during the Revolutionary War, and is dated 1779.
This portrait features George Washington at Princeton during the Revolutionary War, and is dated 1779. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

April 16, 1789: A reluctant President-elect George Washington left his estate in Mount Vernon, Va., for New York, where he would be sworn in as the first president of the United States. Washington was a reluctant president. He was 57 years old and wanted to retire. But he felt compelled to serve, worried that bickering among political factions threatened the future of the young United States.

April 16, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, lay in state in the East Room of the White House. The catafalque that held his coffin was later used for the caskets of, among others, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. You can see it on display at the Capitol, in a room originally meant to be George Washington’s tomb.

Quote of the Day

“I hope I shall possess firmness & virtue enough to maintain…the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” -George Washington

Today in History: The Birth of the Federal Income Tax

In 1861, President Lincoln signed a new law to help pay for the Civil War
President Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland in 1862.
President Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland in 1862.Rischgitz/Getty Images

April 15, 1861: Following the Confederate shelling of Ft. Sumter, S.C., President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union Army. 92,000 did, and the Civil War — the most devastating war in American history — was on. Lincoln quickly adapted to the role of commander-in-chief, assuming vast powers, many of which weren’t granted to him by the Constitution. Supreme Court rulings declared Lincoln’s wartime conduct unconstitutional. He ignored them, saying his priority was to preserve the Union.

April 15, 1861: Needing cash during the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Revenue Act, imposing the first federal income tax. Lincoln asked for the first federal income tax — a 3 percent surcharge on income — because he recognized that Americans needed to pay for their wars.

April 15, 1865: President Abraham Lincoln died of an assassin’s bullet. He was the 16th president, serving between 1861 and 1865. Lincoln — the first of four presidents to be assassinated — had been shot the night before while attending a play at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. He was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson.

April 15, 1986: President Ronald Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, which limited air strikes against Libya and the government of Moammar Gadhafi.

Quote of the day

“We cannot escape history…the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” — Abraham Lincoln