This Upcoming Week in US and World History: April 12-18

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History is written by the victors. For centuries, before the age of the internet, governments and historians wrote their history. Today, as information flows from one side of the world to another in an instant, we now have access to world history, and learning from the past helps us to understand the present and plan for the future.

Ellis Island Designated Immigration station – April 11, 1890

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Image Source: Microstock

In 1890, Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct an immigration station on Ellis Island, a 3-acre island at the mouth of the Hudson River separating New York from New Jersey. It was completed in 1892 when Ellis Island became the main entry point of immigrants coming to the US from Europe. Until it closed in 1954, it processed millions of soon-to-be Americans. Estimates are that about 40% of America’s 310 million residents can trace their families’ arrivals in the US to at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island.

The peak period was between 1900 and 1914, when anywhere from 5 to 10,000 people passed through daily. Being processed must have been confusing and somewhat scary. You’ve been on a ship for days on end, and it isn’t a Carnival Cruise Ship with buffet dinners and entertainment at night. It’s crowded, and when you finally arrive, you are stuck on a barge, ferried to this processing center, and you go through medical and legal inspections.

The odds are you don’t speak much English, and the American officials don’t speak much else. For 80% of the new arrivals, they are done the same day and make their way into New York City, Hoboken or Jersey City. For the other 20%, maybe there was medical quarantine (like Vito Andolini a/k/a/ Vito Corleone in The Godfather II), or maybe the worst happens, and you are denied entry.

“Passage of the Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which limited the number and nationality of immigrants allowed into the United States, effectively ended the era of mass immigration into New York. From 1925 to its closing in 1954, only 2.3 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island–which was still more than half of all those entering the United States.”

Today, Ellis Island has a museum named the “Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.”

Salk Polio Vaccine Announced – April 12, 1955

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Image Source: Table Note

Outbreaks of poliomyelitis used to scare the hell out of people. For the longest time, no one was quite sure how you got it, and there was no treatment. If the odds went against you, polio would put you in a wheelchair more or less for the rest of your life. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got polio as an adult and fought the Great Depression and the fascists unable to walk without leg braces and canes.

When there was an outbreak, “People stayed inside their homes. They avoided movies, camping, vacations and swimming. Anywhere that polio might lurk.” In 1952, more than 360 kids were treated at Omaha’s Children’s Memorial Hospital in Nebraska. At least, 14 were in iron lungs. Thirteen died that summer. Omaha’s experience wasn’t unique.

All that changed 61 years ago with the press release from the University of Michigan that started, “The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.” Kids were given the vaccine in schools. I remember getting my dose in the 1960s – a drop of a rather nasty looking pink liquid was put on a sugar cube, and I ate it. It wasn’t too bad as I recall. I was safe from that moment on. I was just one of millions.

Salk could have made billions if he had chosen to patent the cure and charge a royalty for it. When interviewed by TV’s greatest journalist Edward R. Murrow, he answered the patent question like this: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Yuri Gagarin Orbits Earth – April 12, 1961

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Image Source: Oskemen

The Space Race was a big deal in the 1950s and 1960s. With the Soviet Union and the United States embarking on the Cold War after the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, competition between the two sides in every field of endeavor short of direct war (we had several proxy wars between the two until the 1990s) was deadly serious. Olympic basketball and ice hockey took on geopolitical dimensions. But nowhere was this competition driven home more forcefully than in the Space Race.

The Soviets were the first to put a satellite in orbit, “Sputnik” was launched in 1957. That little lump of metal could be seen in rural places where the city lights didn’t interfere. America launched a huge science program reaching down into the high school to find engineers and physicists. It was a big wake-up call.

However, when Yuri Gagarin reached orbit in his Vostok 1 spacecraft just a few months before I was born, something more important than a Soviet victory over America happened. A member of the species homo sapiens left the Earth. It was only a 108-minute flight, a single orbit. Today, American astronauts go into space aboard a Russian Soyuz launched from Kazakhstan. The Cold War is behind us, but space lies ahead. I know that sounds corny and probably overly romantic, but those of us born in the 1960s were Space Age kids, and Gagarin’s “Poyekhali!”, let’s go, remains the perfect motto for space exploration.

Ray Kroc Opens His First McDonald’s – April 15, 1955

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Image Source: Daily Mail

The first McDonald’s restaurants were out in California. They started out in 1940 as barbecue places, but in 1948, the McDonald’s brothers changed the menu and rebranded their small chain. They served hamburgers, shakes, potato chips (crisps for those of you who speak British), and pie.

Enter Ray Kroc, a traveling salesman for food processing equipment maker Prince Castle, selling multi-mixer milkshake machines. He sold five of his mixers to the McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California, and decided this little chain of 8 outlets could go national. He convinced the brothers (whom he would screw out of millions in unpaid royalties) to let him open a franchise in Des Plains, Illinois.

Sixty-one years ago today, he opened his restaurant up with a menu offering: 15 cent hamburgers (4 cents more got you a cheeseburger), malt shakes were 20 cents, fries (chips for British speakers) were a dime, as were coffee, milk or soda pop (orange, root beer and Coke). Opening day sales came to $366.12.

Within four years, he had opened his 100th franchise. Without Ray Kroc and his vision for McDonalds, you’d probably never have heard of the place – unless you hang out in San Bernardino.

Columbus Signs Contract with Spanish Monarchy – April 17, 1492

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Image Source: Catholic Tradition

We tend to think of our own time as being heavily encumbered with legal rigamarole, but on this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus signed a contract with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. When you think about it, it probably made good sense for both sides. Columbus wasn’t about to sail off to discover whatever was out there and settle for minimum wage; he wanted a piece (a big piece) of the action. As for the Spanish royals, they wanted to make sure that there would be a return on their investment.

The terms of the deal were pretty straightforward:

First, Columbus got the title of Admiral in those lands he “discovered” and such title would be hereditary in perpetuity.

Second, he was made Viceroy and Governor-General empowered to set up a government for each place he “discovered.”

Third, “that all and whatever merchandise, whether it be pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other things whatsoever, and merchandise of whatever kind, name, and manner it may be, which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired, or obtained within the limits of the said Admiralty, your Highnesses grant henceforth to the said Don Christopher, and will that he may have and take for himself, the tenth part of all of them, deducting all the expenses which may be incurred therein; so that of what shall remain free and clear, he may have and take the tenth part for himself . . .”

Fourth, he would get one-eighth of whatever profit there was in outfitting the colonies his ships would service.

On the other side, the Spanish monarchy got 90% of the goodies acquired and 7/8 of the profit from outfitting the colonies.

When you look at the risk-to-reward ratio, this was a win-win setup. Well, win-win for the Europeans. The indigenous Americans didn’t come out of it anywhere near as well.


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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences of ex-patriots living in The United States.

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