Smallpox is officially declared eradicated


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Year
1979
Month Day
December 09

On December 9, 1979, a commission of scientists declare that smallpox has been eradicated. The disease, which carries around a 30 percent chance of death for those who contract it, is the only infectious disease afflicting humans that has officially been eradicated.

Something similar to smallpox had ravaged humanity for thousands of years, with the earliest known description appearing in Indian accounts from the 2 Century BCE. It was believed that the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V died of smallpox in 1145 BCE; however, recent research indicates that the actual smallpox virus may have evolved as late as 1580 CE. A type of inoculation—introducing a small amount of the disease in order to bring on a mild case that results in immunity—was widespread in China by the 16th century.

There is no record of a smallpox-like illness in the Americas before European contact, and the fact that Europeans brought pox with them was a major factor in their conquest and near-eradication of many of the indigenous peoples of North, South and Central America. Smallpox was the leading cause of death in 18th century Europe, leading to many experiments with inoculation. In 1796 the English scientist Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine. Unlike other types of inoculation, Jenner’s vaccine, made from a closely-related disease that affects cows, carried zero risk of transmission.

Many European countries and American states made the vaccination of infants mandatory, and incidents of smallpox declined over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Compared to other epidemic diseases, such as polio or malaria, smallpox eradication was relatively simple because the disease lives only in humans, making human vaccination highly effective at stopping its spread, and its symptoms appear quickly, making it easy to identify and isolate outbreaks.

Starting in 1967, the World Health Organization undertook a worldwide effort to identify and stamp out the last remaining outbreaks of the disease. By the mid-70s, smallpox was only present in the Horn of Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent. The last naturally occurring case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977. Two years later, doctors proclaimed its eradication. The elimination of smallpox is one of the major successes in the history of science and medicine.

READ MORE: How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox

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Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter sign accords


Year
1979
Month Day
January 29

On January 29, 1979, Deng Xiaoping, deputy premier of China, meets President Jimmy Carter, and together they sign historic new accords that reverse decades of U.S. opposition to the People’s Republic of China.

Deng Xiaoping lived out a full and complete transformation of China. The son of a landowner, he joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1920 and participated in Mao Zedong’s Long March in 1934. In 1945, he was appointed to the Party Central Committee and, with the 1949 victory of the communists in the Chinese Civil War, became the regional party leader of southwestern China. Called to Beijing as deputy premier in 1952, he rose rapidly, became general secretary of the CCP in 1954, and a member of the ruling Political Bureau in 1955.

A major policy maker, he advocated individualism and material incentives in China’s attempt to modernize its economy, which often brought him into conflict with Mao and his orthodox communist beliefs. With the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Deng was attacked as a capitalist and removed from high party and government posts. He disappeared from public view and worked in a tractor factory, but in 1973 was reinstated by Premier Zhou Enlai, who again made him deputy premier. When Zhou fell ill in 1975, Deng became the effective leader of China.

In January 1976, Zhou died, and in the subsequent power struggle Deng was purged by the “Gang of Four”–strict Maoists who had come to power in the Cultural Revolution. In September, however, Mao Zedong died, and Deng was rehabilitated after the Gang of Four fell from power. He resumed his post as deputy premier, often overshadowing Premier Hua Guofeng.

Deng sought to open China to foreign investment and create closer ties with the West. In January 1979, he signed accords with President Jimmy Carter, and later that year the United States granted full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

In 1981, Deng strengthened his position by replacing Hua Guofeng with his protege, Hu Yaobang, and together the men instituted widespread economic reforms in China. The reforms were based on capitalist models, such as the decentralization of various industries, material incentives as the reward for economic success, and the creation of a skilled and well-educated financial elite. As chief adviser to a series of successors, he continued to be the main policy maker in China during the 1980s.

Under Deng, China’s economy rapidly grew, and citizens enjoyed expanded personal, economic, and cultural freedoms. Political freedoms were still greatly restricted, however, and China continued as an authoritative one-party state. In 1989, Deng hesitantly supported the government crackdown on the democratic demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Later that year, he resigned his last party post but continued to be an influential adviser to the Chinese government until his death in 1997.

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6-year-old Etan Patz—boy on milk carton—goes missing

Year
1979
Month Day
May 25

On the morning of May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz walked the two blocks from his home to his bus stop in Manhattan. It was his first time walking there alone before school, and the last day his parents would ever see him. That’s because someone abducted Etan during that walk. In his parents’ effort to find him, Etan became among the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.

Julie and Stanley Patz didn’t realize her son was missing until later that day, when he didn’t come home from the Independence Plaza School. They soon learned he hadn’t been in his first grade class that day or even made the bus that morning, and called the police. Etan’s disappearance led to nationwide search that wasn’t resolved until 2017, when Pedro Hernandez was convicted of abducting and killing him.

Etan was among the first non-celebrity missing children to gain national attention, the way JonBenét Ramsey would in 1996. In the early 1980s, Etan’s face appeared on milk cartons all over the country encouraging people to contact the authorities if they’d seen him. Etan’s case also led President Ronald Reagan to declare May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in 1983, and played a role in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In the decades after Etan went missing, there were fake confessions, false leads and even young men who showed up at the Patz’s doorstep claiming to be Etan. For a long time, investigators suspected Jose Ramos of abducting him. Ramos was a friend of Etan’s former babysitter who was convicted of child molestation in the 1980s. But investigators were never able to confirm that Ramos was guilty. In 2000, authorities declared Etan legally dead, and the case went cold.

Investigators reopened the case in 2010, and two years later they excavated the foundation of a home near Etan’s to look for clues. The excavation didn’t turn anything up, but the media coverage of it did lead people to report some new tips, one of which lead investigators to the person they were looking for. That person was Pedro Hernandez, who had been 18 and worked at the bodega near Etan’s bus stop the day he disappeared.

Investigators discovered that in 1982, Hernandez had admitted in an open church confessional that he had killed a young boy. His family knew about this and had begun discussing it again when the saw news of the excavation. Police interrogated Hernandez, and he confessed that he had lured Etan into the bodega and strangled him. He then put his body in a box and left it outside in a trash pile a couple of blocks away.

Hernandez’s 2015 case ended in a mistrial because one juror was not convinced he was guilty. Like the defense had argued, that juror was concerned Hernandez was mentally ill and that police may have coerced him into a false confession. At his next trial in 2017, Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in federal prison.

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Margaret Thatcher sworn in as Britain’s first female prime minister

Year
1979
Month Day
May 04

Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party, is sworn in as Britain’s first female prime minister. The Oxford-educated chemist and lawyer was sworn in the day after the Conservatives won a 44-seat majority in general parliamentary elections.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham, England, in 1925. She was the first woman president of the Oxford University Conservative Association and in 1950 ran for Parliament in Dartford. She was defeated but garnered an impressive number of votes in the generally liberal district. In 1959, after marrying businessman Denis Thatcher and giving birth to twins, she was elected to Parliament as a Conservative for Finchley, a north London district. During the 1960s, she rose rapidly in the ranks of the Conservative Party and in 1967 joined the shadow cabinet sitting in opposition to Harold Wilson’s ruling Labour cabinet. With the victory of the Conservative Party under Edward Heath in 1970, Thatcher became secretary of state for education and science.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Margaret Thatcher 

In 1974, the Labour Party returned to power, and Thatcher served as joint shadow chancellor before replacing Edward Heath as the leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975. She was the first woman to head the Conservatives. Under her leadership, the Conservative Party shifted further right in its politics, calling for privatization of national industries and utilities and promising a resolute defense of Britain’s interests abroad. She also sharply criticized Prime Minister James Callaghan’s ineffectual handling of the chaotic labor strikes of 1978 and 1979.

In March 1979, Callaghan was defeated by a vote of no confidence, and on May 3 a general election gave Thatcher’s Conservatives a majority in Parliament. Sworn in the next day, Prime Minister Thatcher immediately set about dismantling socialism in Britain. She privatized numerous industries, cutback government expenditures, and gradually reduced the rights of trade unions. In 1983, despite the worst unemployment figures for half a decade, Thatcher was reelected to a second term, thanks largely to the decisive British victory in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.

In other foreign affairs, the “Iron Lady” presided over the orderly establishment of an independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in 1980 and took a hard stance against Irish separatists in Northern Ireland. In October 1984, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb exploded at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton. The prime minister narrowly escaped harm.

READ MORE: How the Falklands War Cemented Margaret Thatcher’s Reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’

In 1987, an upswing in the economy led to her election to a third term, but Thatcher soon alienated some members of her own party because of her poll-tax policies and opposition to further British integration into the European Community. In November 1990, she failed to received a majority in the Conservative Party’s annual vote for selection of a leader. She withdrew her nomination, and John Major, the chancellor of the Exchequer since 1989, was chosen as Conservative leader. On November 28, Thatcher resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Major. Thatcher’s three consecutive terms in office marked the longest continuous tenure of a British prime minister since 1827. In 1992, she was made a baroness and took a seat in the House of Lords.

In later years, Thatcher worked as a consultant, served as the chancellor of the College of William and Mary and wrote her memoirs, as well as other books on politics. She continued to work with the Thatcher Foundation, which she created to foster the ideals of democracy, free trade and cooperation among nations. Though she stopped appearing in public after suffering a series of small strokes in the early 2000s, her influence remained strong. In 2011, the former prime minister was the subject of an award-winning (and controversial) biographical film, “The Iron Lady,” which depicted her political rise and fall. Margaret Thatcher died on April 8, 2013, at the age of 87.

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Pol Pot overthrown


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Year
1979
Month Day
January 07

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops seize the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, toppling the brutal regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge, organized by Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle in the 1960s, advocated a radical Communist revolution that would wipe out Western influences in Cambodia and set up a solely agrarian society. In 1970, aided by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, Khmer Rouge guerrillas began a large-scale insurgency against Cambodian government forces, soon gaining control of nearly a third of the country.

By 1973, secret U.S. bombings of Cambodian territory controlled by the Vietnamese Communists forced the Vietnamese out of the country, creating a power vacuum that was soon filled by Pol Pot’s rapidly growing Khmer Rouge movement. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, overthrew the pro-U.S. regime, and established a new government, the Kampuchean People’s Republic.

As the new ruler of Cambodia, Pol Pot set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia. The cities were evacuated, factories and schools were closed, and currency and private property was abolished. Anyone believed to be an intellectual, such as someone who spoke a foreign language, was immediately killed. Skilled workers were also killed, in addition to anyone caught in possession of eyeglasses, a wristwatch, or any other modern technology. In forced marches punctuated with atrocities from the Khmer Rouge, the millions who failed to escape Cambodia were herded onto rural collective farms.

Between 1975 and 1978, an estimated two million Cambodians died by execution, forced labor, and famine. In 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh in early 1979. A moderate Communist government was established, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated back into the jungle.

In 1985, Pol Pot officially retired but remained the effective head of the Khmer Rouge, which continued its guerrilla actions against the government in Phnom Penh. In 1997, however, he was put on trial by the organization after an internal power struggle ousted him from his leadership position. Sentenced to life imprisonment by a “people’s tribunal,” which critics derided as a show trial, Pol Pot later declared in an interview, “My conscience is clear.” Much of the international community hoped that his captors would extradite him to stand trial for his crimes against humanity, but he died of apparently natural causes while under house arrest in 1998.

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Shah flees Iran


Year
1979
Month Day
January 16

Faced with an army mutiny and violent demonstrations against his rule, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the leader of Iran since 1941, is forced to flee the country. Fourteen days later, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic revolution, returned after 15 years of exile and took control of Iran.

In 1941, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran, and the first Pahlavi shah, who they regarded with suspicion, was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza. The new shah promised to act as a constitutional monarch but often meddled in the elected government’s affairs. After a Communist plot against him was thwarted in 1949, he took on even more powers. However, in the early 1950s, the shah was eclipsed by Mohammad Mosaddeq, a zealous Iranian nationalist who convinced the Parliament to nationalize Britain’s extensive oil interests in Iran. Mohammad Reza, who maintained close relations with Britain and the United States, opposed the decision. Nevertheless, he was forced in 1951 to appoint Mosaddeq premier, and two years of tension followed.

In August 1953, Mohammad Reza attempted to dismiss Mosaddeq, but the premier’s popular support was so great that the shah himself was forced out of Iran. A few days later, British and U.S. intelligence agents orchestrated a stunning coup d’etat against Mosaddeq, and the shah returned to take power as the sole leader of Iran. He repealed Mosaddeq’s legislation and became a close Cold War ally of the United States in the Middle East.

In 1963, the shah launched his “White Revolution,” a broad government program that included land reform, infrastructure development, voting rights for women, and the reduction of illiteracy. Although these programs were applauded by many in Iran, Islamic leaders were critical of what they saw as the westernization of Iran. Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite cleric, was particularly vocal in his criticism and called for the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of an Islamic state. In 1964, Khomeini was exiled and settled across the border in Iraq, where he sent radio messages to incite his supporters.

The shah saw himself foremost as a Persian king and in 1971 held an extravagant celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the pre-Islamic Persian monarchy. In 1976, he formally replaced the Islamic calendar with a Persian calendar. Religious discontent grew, and the shah became more repressive, using his brutal secret police force to suppress opposition. This alienated students and intellectuals in Iran, and support for Khomeini grew. Discontent was also rampant in the poor and middle classes, who felt that the economic developments of the White Revolution had only benefited the ruling elite. In 1978, anti-shah demonstrations broke out in Iran’s major cities.

On September 8, 1978, the shah’s security force fired on a large group of demonstrators, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Two months later, thousands took to the streets of Tehran, rioting and destroying symbols of westernization, such as banks and liquor stores. Khomeini called for the shah’s immediate overthrow, and on December 11 a group of soldiers mutinied and attacked the shah’s security officers. With that, his regime collapsed and the shah fled.

The shah traveled to several countries before entering the United States in October 1979 for medical treatment of his cancer. In Tehran, Islamic militants responded on November 4 by storming the U.S. embassy and taking the staff hostage. With the approval of Khomeini, the militants demanded the return of the shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes. The United States refused to negotiate, and 52 American hostages were held for 444 days. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi died in Egypt in July 1980. 

READ MORE: U.S.-Iran Tensions: From Political Coup to Hostage Crisis to Drone Strikes

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China invades Vietnam


Year
1979
Month Day
February 17

In response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, China launches an invasion of Vietnam.

Tensions between Vietnam and China increased dramatically after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Attempting to expand its influence, Vietnam established a military presence in Laos; strengthened its ties with China’s rival, the Soviet Union; and toppled the Cambodian regime of Pol Pot in 1979. Just over a month later, Chinese forces invaded, but were repulsed in nine days of bloody and bitter fighting. Tensions between China and Vietnam remained high throughout the next decade, and much of Vietnam’s scarce resources were allocated to protecting its border with China and its interests in Cambodia.

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Skylab crashes to Earth

Year
1979
Month Day
July 11

Parts of Skylab, America’s first space station, come crashing down on Australia and into the Indian Ocean five years after the last manned Skylab mission ended. No one was injured.

READ MORE: The Day Skylab Crashed to Earth

Launched in 1973, Skylab was the world’s first successful space station. The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. However, unlike the ill-fated Salyut, which was plagued with problems, the American space station was a great success, safely housing three separate three-man crews for extended periods of time.

Originally the spent third stage of a Saturn 5 moon rocket, the cylindrical space station was 118 feet tall, weighed 77 tons, and carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time.

Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate–earlier than was anticipated–because of unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, Skylab made a spectacular return to earth, breaking up in the atmosphere and showering burning debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

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Ugandan dictator Idi Amin overthrown

Year
1979
Month Day
April 11

On April 11, 1979, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin flees the Ugandan capital of Kampala as Tanzanian troops and forces of the Uganda National Liberation Front close in. Two days later, Kampala fell and a coalition government of former exiles took power.

Amin, chief of the Ugandan army and air force from 1966, seized control of the African nation in 1971. A tyrant and extreme nationalist, he launched a genocidal program to purge Uganda of its Lango and Acholi ethnic groups. In 1972, he ordered all Asians who had not taken Ugandan nationality to leave the country, and some 60,000 Indians and Pakistanis fled. These Asians comprised an important portion of the work force, and the Ugandan economy collapsed after their departure.

In 1979, his eight years of chaotic rule came to an end when Tanzania and anti-Amin Ugandan forces invaded and toppled his regime. Amin had launched an unsuccessful attack on Tanzania in October 1978 in an effort to divert attention from Uganda’s internal problems. He escaped to Libya, eventually settling in Saudi Arabia, where he died in August 2003. The deaths of 300,000 Ugandans are attributed to Idi Amin.

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Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran


Year
1979
Month Day
February 01

On February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran in triumph after 15 years of exile. The shah and his family had fled the country two weeks before, and jubilant Iranian revolutionaries were eager to establish a fundamentalist Islamic government under Khomeini’s leadership.

Born around the turn of the century, Ruhollah Khomeini was the son of an Islamic religious scholar and in his youth memorized the Qur’an. He was a Shiite—the branch of Islam practiced by a majority of Iranians—and soon devoted himself to the formal study of Shia Islam in the city of Qom. A devout cleric, he rose steadily in the Shiite hierarchy and attracted many disciples.

In 1941, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the second modern shah of Iran. The new shah had close ties with the West, and in 1953 British and U.S. intelligence agents helped him overthrow a popular political rival. Mohammad Reza embraced many Western ideas and in 1963 launched his “White Revolution,” a broad government program that called for the reduction of religious estates in the name of land redistribution, equal rights for women, and other modern reforms.

Khomeini, now known by the high Shiite title “ayatollah,” was the first religious leader to openly condemn the shah’s program of westernization. In fiery dispatches from his Faziye Seminary in Qom, Khomeini called for the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of an Islamic state. In 1963, Mohammad Reza imprisoned him, which led to riots, and on November 4, 1964, expelled him from Iran.

Khomeini settled in An Najaf, a Shiite holy city across the border in Iraq, and sent home recordings of his sermons that continued to incite his student followers. Breaking precedence with the Shiite tradition that discouraged clerical participation in government, he called for Shiite leaders to govern Iran.

In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza further enraged Islamic fundamentalists in Iran by holding an extravagant celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the pre-Islamic Persian monarchy and replaced the Islamic calendar with a Persian calendar. As discontent grew, the shah became more repressive, and support for Khomeini grew. In 1978, massive anti-shah demonstrations broke out in Iran’s major cities. Dissatisfied members of the lower and middle classes joined the radical students, and Khomeini called for the shah’s immediate overthrow. In December, the army mutinied, and on January 16, 1979, the shah fled.

Khomeini arrived in Tehran in triumph on February 1, 1979, and was acclaimed as the leader of the Iranian Revolution. With religious fervor running high, he consolidated his authority and set out to transform Iran into a religious state. On November 4, 1979, the 15th anniversary of his exile, students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. With Khomeini’s approval, the radicals demanded the return of the shah to Iran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The shah died in Egypt of cancer in July 1980.

In December 1979, a new Iranian constitution was approved, naming Khomeini as Iran’s political and religious leader for life. Under his rule, Iranian women were denied equal rights and required to wear a veil, Western culture was banned, and traditional Islamic law and its often-brutal punishments were reinstated. In suppressing opposition, Khomeini proved as ruthless as the shah, and thousands of political dissidents were executed during his decade of rule.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran’s oil-producing province of Khuzestan. After initial advances, the Iraqi offense was repulsed. In 1982, Iraq voluntarily withdrew and sought a peace agreement, but Khomeini renewed fighting. Stalemates and the deaths of thousands of young Iranian conscripts in Iraq followed. In 1988, Khomeini finally agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

After the Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, more than two million anguished mourners attended his funeral. Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader. Gradual democratization began in Iran in early the 1990s, culminating in a free election in 1997 in which the moderate reformist Mohammed Khatami was elected president. 

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