Historical Events for 31st May 2022

1899 – -June 5] Conference of Bloemfontein fails
1910 – Glenn Curtiss flies from Albany to NYC
1927 – Tiger 1st baseman Johnny Neun makes an unassisted triple play
1928 – Charlie Hallows scores his 1,000th run of Cricket season
1928 – 1st aerial crossing of Pacific takes off from Oakland
1929 – Atlantic City Convention Center opens
1930 – Don Bradman batting for Australia v Hampshire at Southampton is 47 not out at stumps, bringing his aggregate to 1,001 runs, the first cricket touring overseas batsman to complete 1,000 runs by end of May
1943 – “Archie” comic strip 1st broadcast on radio
1953 – WSUN TV channel 38 in St Petersburg-Tampa, FL (IND) 1st broadcast
1999 – NHL Eastern Conference Final: Buffalo Sabres beat Toronto Maple Leafs, 4 games to 1

More Historical Events »

Poet Walt Whitman, author of “Leaves of Grass,” is born

May 31, 1819 is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island, and raised in Brooklyn.

Although Whitman loved music and books, he left school at the age of 14 to become a journeyman printer. Later, he worked as a teacher, journalist, editor, carpenter, and held various other jobs to support his writing. In 1855, he self-published a slim volume of poems called Leaves of Grass, which carried his picture but not his name. With this book, Whitman hoped to become a truly American poet, as envisioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1843).

Whitman spent much time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, attending cultural events, taking long walks, and sometimes riding on coaches and ferries as an excuse to talk with people. In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass included his “Sundown Poem,” later called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

In 1862, Whitman’s brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went to care for him. He spent the rest of the war comforting both Union and Confederate soldiers. His poem “Oh Captain, My Captain,” mourned Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman worked for several government departments after the war until he suffered a stroke in 1873. He spent the rest of his life in Camden, New Jersey, and continued to issue revised editions of Leaves of Grass until shortly before his death in 1892.

Three U.S. presidents close chapters on the Cold War

On May 30, 1988, three U.S. presidents in three different years take significant steps toward ending the Cold War.

Beginning on May 28, 1988, President Ronald Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for a four-day summit in Russia. Upon his election in 1980, Reagan had abandoned Nixon, Ford and Carter’s attempts to diffuse political tensions between the two superpowers and instead instigated an enormous build-up of arms and rhetoric against the Soviet Union. The Soviets could not keep up with the U.S.’s massive defense spending and this, along with Gorbachev’s policy of granting increasing freedom to Soviet citizens (glasnost), helped to erode hard-line communism within Russia. 

 In a remarkable and symbolic address to a group of Moscow University students on May 31, Reagan stood in front of an enormous bust of Lenin and spoke openly about freedom, technology, creativity and his desire to see the Berlin Wall torn down. He told the students, “Your generation is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope, when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free.”

READ MORE: The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech

Two years to the day after Reagan’s 1988 visit, and just about a year after the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev in the United States to discuss the reunification of East and West Germany. Bush and Gorbachev outlined a plan that would unite the separate communist and democratic spheres into one nation not seen since World War II. In 1991, after an aborted communist coup against Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became president and the Soviet Union was officially declared over, dismantled and re-named Russia. Most of the former Soviet satellite territories were granted their independence. Russia then initiated tentative steps toward a capitalist economic system.

On this day in 1994, President Bill Clinton pledged continued cooperation with Russia in a New World Order, declaring that the U.S. would no longer point nuclear missiles at Russia, ending the antagonism and fear of mutually assured destruction that characterized the half-century-long Cold War between the two superpowers.

READ MORE: The Cold War Timeline

Germans conquer Crete

On May 31, 1941, the last of the Allies evacuate after 11 days of battling a successful German parachute invasion of the island of Crete. Crete is now Axis-occupied territory.

On the morning of May 20, some 3,000 members of Germany’s Division landed on Crete, which was patrolled and protected by more than 28,000 Allied troops and an almost equal number of Greek soldiers. The German invasion, although anticipated, was not taken seriously; the real fear was of an attack from the sea. Those initial 3,000 parachutists were reinforced—to the tune of an additional 19,000 men, arriving by parachute drop, glider, and troop carrier.

The Allies remained optimistic; many of the German soldiers who dropped from the sky died or were injured on impact. The rest were undersupplied and inexperienced. But by the May 26, British General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the defense of Crete, already reported that their position was hopeless. Evacuation of Allied troops began on the 28th. By the night of the 31st, the last of the Allies that would make it out had left the seaport of Sphakia; 5,000 men would be left behind in the hands of the Germans. The total loss of Allied land soldiers in the Cretan engagements was 1,742; a further 2,265 sailors were lost at sea. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been sunk. The Germans suffered a loss of about 4,000 men.

Strangely, Hitler, despite the victory, considered his “losses” too great to pursue further gains in the Mediterranean and finally drive Great Britain out of the area.

READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?

Big Ben rings out over London for the first time

The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high Elizabeth Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on May 31, 1859.

After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster—the headquarters of the British Parliament—in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.

The name “Big Ben” originally just applied to the bell but later came to refer to the clock itself. Two main stories exist about how Big Ben got its name. Many claim it was named after the famously long-winded Sir Benjamin Hall, the London commissioner of works at the time it was built. Another famous story argues that the bell was named for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest of its kind.

Even after an incendiary bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons during the Second World War, Elizabeth Tower survived, and Big Ben continued to function. Its famously accurate timekeeping is regulated by a stack of coins placed on the clock’s huge pendulum, ensuring a steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night, all four of the clock’s faces, each one 23 feet across, are illuminated. A light above Big Ben is also lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.

READ MORE: That Time Big Ben Stopped

Ford Motor Company signs agreement with Soviet Union

After two years of exploratory visits and friendly negotiations, Ford Motor Company signs a landmark agreement to produce cars in the Soviet Union on May 30, 1929.

The Soviet Union, which in 1928 had only 20,000 cars and a single truck factory, was eager to join the ranks of automotive production, and Ford, with its focus on engineering and manufacturing methods, was a natural choice to help. The always independent-minded Henry Ford was strongly in favor of his free-market company doing business with Communist countries. An article published in May 1929 in The New York Times quoted Ford as saying that “No matter where industry prospers, whether in India or China, or Russia, all the world is bound to catch some good from it.”

Signed in Dearborn, Michigan, on May 31, 1929, the contract stipulated that Ford would oversee construction of a production plant at Nizhny Novgorod, located on the banks of the Volga River, to manufacture Model A cars. An assembly plant would also start operating immediately within Moscow city limits. In return, the USSR agreed to buy 72,000 unassembled Ford cars and trucks and all spare parts to be required over the following nine years, a total of some $30 million worth of Ford products. Valery Meshlauk, vice chairman of the Supreme Council of National Economy, signed the Dearborn agreement on behalf of the Soviets. To comply with its side of the deal, Ford sent engineers and executives to the Soviet Union.

At the time the U.S. government did not formally recognize the USSR in diplomatic negotiations, so the Ford agreement was groundbreaking. (A week after the deal was announced the Soviet Union would announce deals with 15 other foreign companies, including E.I. du Pont de Nemours and RCA.) As Douglas Brinkley writes in “Wheels for the World,” his book on Henry Ford and Ford Motor, the automaker was firm in his belief that introducing capitalism was the best way to undermine communism. In any case, Ford’s assistance in establishing motor vehicle production facilities in the USSR would greatly impact the course of world events, as the ability to produce these vehicles helped the Soviets defeat Germany on the Eastern Front during World War II. In 1944, according to Brinkley, Stalin wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling Henry Ford “one of the world’s greatest industrialists” and expressing the hope that “may God preserve him.”

READ MORE: The Cars That Made America

Architect of the Holocaust hanged in Israel

Near Tel Aviv, Israel, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish question,” was executed for his crimes against humanity.

Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1906. In November 1932, he joined the Nazi’s elite SS (Schutzstaffel) organization, whose members came to have broad responsibilities in Nazi Germany, including policing, intelligence, and the enforcement of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. Eichmann steadily rose in the SS hierarchy, and with the German annexation of Austria in 1938 he was sent to Vienna with the mission of ridding the city of Jews. He set up an efficient Jewish deportation center and in 1939 was sent to Prague on a similar mission. That year, Eichmann was appointed to the Jewish section of the SS central security office in Berlin.

READ MORE: The Daring Israeli Spy Operation to Capture Nazi Mass Murderer Adolf Eichmann

In January 1942, Eichmann met with top Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin for the purpose of planning a “final solution of the Jewish question,” as Nazi leader Hermann Goering put it. The Nazis decided to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Eichmann was appointed to coordinate the identification, assembly, and transportation of millions of Jews from occupied Europe to the Nazi death camps, where Jews were gassed or worked to death. He carried this duty out with horrifying efficiency, and between three to four million Jews perished in the extermination camps before the end of World War II. Close to two million were executed elsewhere.

Following the war, Eichmann was captured by U.S. troops, but he escaped a prison camp in 1946 before having to face the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal. Eichmann traveled under an assumed identity between Europe and the Middle East, and in 1950 he arrived in Argentina, which maintained lax immigration policies and was a safe haven for many Nazi war criminals. In 1957, a German prosecutor secretly informed Israel that Eichmann was living in Argentina. Agents from Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, were deployed to Argentina, and in early 1960 they finally located Eichmann; he was living in the San Fernando section of Buenos Aires under the name of Ricardo Klement.

In May 1960, Argentina was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its revolution against Spain, and many tourists were traveling to Argentina from abroad to attend the festivities. The Mossad used the opportunity to smuggle more agents into the country. Israel, knowing that Argentina might never extradite Eichmann for trial, had decided to abduct him and take him to Israel illegally. On May 11, Mossad operatives descended on Garibaldi Street in San Fernando and snatched Eichmann away as he was walking from the bus to his home. His family called local hospitals but not the police, and Argentina knew nothing of the operation. On May 20, a drugged Eichmann was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident. Three days later, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Eichmann was in Israeli custody.

READ MORE: The 7 Most Notorious Nazis Who Escaped to South America

Argentina demanded Eichmann’s return, but Israel argued that his status as an international war criminal gave them the right to proceed with a trial. On April 11, 1961, Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem. It was the first televised trial in history. Eichmann faced 15 charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. He claimed he was just following orders, but the judges disagreed, finding him guilty on all counts on December 15 and sentencing him to die. On May 31, 1962, he was hanged near Tel Aviv. His body was cremated and his ashes thrown into the sea.

Netanyahu elected prime minister of Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is narrowly defeated in national elections by Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, leader of the Labor Party, became prime minister in 1995 after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist.

Netanyahu, who promised to be tough on terrorism and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was at 47 the youngest prime minister elected in the country’s history. Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, he served in the Israel Defense Forces and during the 1980s was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. In 1988, he was elected to the Israeli parliament and served as deputy minister of foreign affairs from 1988 to 1991. In 1993, he became the Likud leader and three years later Israeli prime minister.

On May 18, 1999, after three years as prime minister, a stalled peace process, and epidemic political in-fighting within his cabinet led to his electoral defeat by Labor challenger Ehud Barak. During his concession speech that evening, Netanyahu also resigned as Likud Party leader.

Netanyahu was reelected as prime minister in 2009, 2013 and 2015. In the 2019 election, he failed to form a governing coalition. In 2021, Naftali Bennett became Israeli prime minster, ousting Netanyahu. Since 2016, Netanyahu has been facing charges of corruption, and was indicted in 2019. 

The Boer War ends in South Africa

In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War.

The Boers, also known as Afrikaners, were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa. Britain took possession of the Dutch Cape colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, sparking resistance from the independence-minded Boers, who resented the Anglicization of South Africa and Britain’s anti-slavery policies. In 1833, the Boers began an exodus into African tribal territory, where they founded the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two new republics lived peaceably with their British neighbors until 1867, when the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region made conflict between the Boer states and Britain inevitable.

Minor fighting with Britain began in the 1890s and in 1899 full-scale war ensued. By mid-June of 1900, British forces had captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories, but the Boers launched a guerrilla war that frustrated the British occupiers. Beginning in 1901, the British began a strategy of systematically searching out and destroying these guerrilla units, while herding the families of the Boer soldiers into concentration camps. By 1902, the British had crushed the Boer resistance, and on May 31 of that year, the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, ending hostilities.

The treaty recognized the British military administration over Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and authorized a general amnesty for Boer forces. In 1910, the autonomous Union of South Africa was established by the British. It included Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the Cape of Good Hope and Natal as provinces.

The BBC bans the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”

Thirty years after its release, John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten—offered this assessment of the song that made the Sex Pistols the most reviled and revered figures in England in the spring of 1977: “There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.” Timed with typical Sex Pistols flair to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the release of “God Save The Queen” was greeted by precisely the torrent of negative press that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had hoped. On May 31, 1977, the song earned a total ban on radio airplay from the BBC—a kiss of death for a normal pop single, but a powerful endorsement for an anti-establishment rant like “God Save The Queen.”

While some in the tabloid press accused the Sex Pistols of treason and called for their public hanging, the BBC was more moderate in its condemnation. In response to lyrics like “God Save The Queen/She ain’t no human being,” the BBC labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste”—a difficult charge to argue, and one the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have wanted to dispute. Even with the radio ban in place, however, and with major retailers like Woolworth refusing to sell the controversial single, “God Save The Queen” flew off the shelves of the stores that did carry it, selling up to 150,000 copies a day in late May and early June. With sales figures like that, it seems implausible that “God Save The Queen” really stalled at #2 on the official UK pop charts, yet that is where it appeared, as a blank entry below “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Rod Stewart, the ultimate anti-punk. Like every other effort to suppress the song, refusing even to print its name in the official pop charts played right into the Sex Pistols’ hands

Like naughty schoolboys concerned only with the approval of their peers, the Sex Pistols baited the British establishment throughout their brief career, but never more so than during the Silver Jubilee. When they took to the waters of the Thames and attempted to blast “God Save The Queen” from giant speakers loaded onto a boat chartered by Virgin Records chief Richard Branson, the police dutifully responded by chasing the boat down and arresting its passengers when they reached the dock. When members of Parliament threatened to ban all sales of the single, a Virgin spokesman replied: “It is remarkable that MPs should have nothing better to do than get agitated about records which were never intended for their Ming vase sensibilities.” Like the BBC ban announced on this day in 1977, these incidents only fed the controversy the Sex Pistols had set out to create.