Monday, 14 April 2014

Hungary: The Picnic That Changed the World

"[It was in Hungary that] the first stone was knocked out of the Berlin Wall." (Helmut Kohl)

The Berlin Wall did not come down with hammers and chisels.  It came down with sandwiches and hotdogs, served at a picnic in Hungary on August 19, 1989.

A Pan European Picnic was suggested by the Austrian Euro MP, Otto Von Habsburg (remember the Habsburg Empire?) and Hungarian Minister of State IMre Pozsgay.  The plan was to open the border between the two countries for a few hours to test the tolerance of the Soviet Union.  The suggestion came on the heals of a gestrue by two foreign ministers who had clipped the barbed wire, which represented the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary, two months before.  The incident was caught on film and viewed around the world.  

Ten thousand people attended the historic picnic which was held in Sopron, Hungary, a town of medieval and baroque architecture dating back to Roman times.  Lieutenant Colonel Arpad Bella was on duty that day at the Sopron Park.  His orders were to wait for the official delegation to arrive and then open the wooden gate, giving the picnickers free access to Austria.  But to his surprise, it was not an official delegation that arrived at 3 pm but a group of six hundred East Germans, who had been camping in local campsites, parks and churches, intent on gaining entrance to the West.  Bella's orders were clear:  if anyone tried to pass through, he was to fire warning shots, and then shoot them.  

But on the day of the picnic, Bella did not shoot:  he simply let the East Germans pass through the gate to freedom.  The picnickers who remained inside the gate that day enjoyed sandwiches and hotdogs.  But it wasn't the food that they remembered.  It was the kindness of the Hungarian border guard.  While the guards re-closed the border later that day, a chain of events was set into motion that could not be altered.  As Laslo Magas explained:  

"It was a stroke of luck that the East Germans could flee in this way.  At that time, we were threatened with prosecution but by the next day, I already felt that we'd set the world on fire."

Soon, the barbed wire marking the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary was permanently removed. What remained was only a wild woodland and a solitary watchtower where soldiers used to fire at anyone Hungarian who attempted to flee.  

Three months after the Pan European Picnic, the Berlin Wall fell.

Note:  For more information, visit

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Faith and Confidence

It was September 11, 1957.  Washingtonians lined the street to watch a parade hosted by the Chinese Merchants Association.  One little boy, excited to see the dancing dragons, climbed off the curb.  A young policeman, clad in pressed pants and polished shoes, bent over to plead with the little boy to get back on the sidewalk.  Photographer William C. Beall, a combat photographer who was on Iwo Jima the day the American flag was raised, was ready with his Speed Graphic camera to snap a picture.  William raced back to the newsroom to develop his film.  The photograph ran on the front page of the Washington Daily News. Later, it was reprinted on the back page of Life magazine, taking on a life of its own.  

The photographer, who was on the wrong side of the island the day the American flag raising photo was captured on Iwo Jima, got his own iconic photograph right in his hometown.  Resembling a Norman Rockwell painting, it tugged at the heartstrings of the nation.  The photographer went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The policeman, Maurice Cullinane went on to become Washington D.C.'s Chief of Police in 1974.  And the little boy, Allen Weaver, grew up and moved to California where he worked in the entertainment industry.  

Note:  A statue duplicating the famous photograph "Faith and Confidence" was erected in Jonesboro, Georgia.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Kent State Massacre

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

(Neil Young)

"Four dead in Ohio" screamed the headline on May 4, 1970.  It took only 13 seconds and 67 rounds of ammunition.  When the smoke cleared on the Kent State Campus, four students were dead, another 9 wounded.  John Filo snapped a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, screaming over one of the slain victims. One of the most famous anti-Vietnam pictures, it would win a Pulitzer Prize and rally a nation.

When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he had promised to end the Vietnam War.  But by 1969, the war was escalating.  Changes to the draft laws saw more and more college students and even teachers going off to Southeast Asia to fight.  The Mai Lai Massacre made more and more Americans weary of the war.  

Then, President Nixon did the unthinkable and bombed Cambodia as well.  Five hundred students protested at Kent State University on May 1, 1970, a direct response to the Cambodian campaign.  To show they meant business, some of the students buried the American Constitution.  A crowd of 120 committed acts of vandalism.  

The destruction escalated the following day when the ROTC building was burned; when firefighters attempted to extinguish the blaze, they were pelted with rocks by the protesters.  Late that night the National Guard arrived and some arrests were made.  They used tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.  

On May 3, Ohio Governor Rhodes commented on the disturbance:  "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups." Later he said:  "They're worse than the Brownshirts [Nazis]."  Kent residents were given an 11 pm curfew that evening.

On May 4, another rally was planned on the Kent State campus.  One protester rang the campus's iron Victory Bell, normally reserved for football games, to signal the rally's start.  After a few speeches, the scene turned ugly.  Protesters pelted rocks at the patrolmen who asked them to disperse.  The latter were forced to retreat.  However, at 12 noon, the guardsmen returned and asked the protesters again to disperse but they refused. The guardsmen threw gas canisters which were ineffective because the wind simply blew the gas away.  They advanced forcing the protesters to retreat over Blanket Hill. While the protesters stayed on the verandah of Taylor Hall, the troops stood on the practice field.  It seemed like there was a lull in the fighting.

All of a sudden, the guardsmen marched in a column up the hill and turned to face the students.  Sergeant Pryor pulled his pistol and fired, followed by 29 of the 77 guardsmen.  Four people were hit, none of whom was closer than 71 feet from the guardsmen.  Two were protesters, two were simply walking to their next class.  Nine others lay wounded on the ground.  

Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14 year old runaway, screamed when she saw one of the victims, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the ground.  It was at that moment that Kent State photojournalism student John Filo snapped the now famous picture.  Kent State Professor Frank, knowing that there could easily be more bloodshed, pleaded with the students to return to class.  After 20 tense minutes, the remaining protesters dispersed.  

Reporters nationwide covered the story "Four Dead in Ohio".  Photographer Filo's photo ran in dozens of newspapers.  And Americans, who were already questioning the Vietnam War, became more polarized than ever before.  

Note:  For more information --

1.  Listen to Neil Young's song "Four Dead in Ohio".
2.  Read Garry Geddes poem, dedicated to one of the victims, called "Sandra Lee Scheuer".
3.  Watch Chris Triffo's documentary "Kent State:  The Day the War Came Home" (2000).

Friday, 11 April 2014

Kentucky Flood

It left four hundred Americans dead.  It left 1 million homeless.  It cost 20 million dollars.  And it made Margaret Bourke-White's career.  It was the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Eighteen inches of rain fell in sixteen days in Kentucky, one of five states hit by the flood.  Sheets of ice that had formed on the Ohio River over the winter, began to melt, adding to the river's volume.  At its peak, the river was 60 feet above normal by February of 1937.  The city of Louisville, the hardest hit city on the Ohio River, was 70% under water.  Louisville's home and business owners fled to higher ground.  Some older buildings in Kentucky still bear the decades-old water marks; Ginn's Furniture Store, a two storey building, has water marks that reach within three feet of the roof.  

In 1937, Kentucky residents didn't just face the Great Flood; they also faced the Great Depression.  Life's photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who had photographed victims of the Dust Bowl in 1936, was able to snap a picture of a bread line in Louisville, Kentucky during the flood.  But it wasn't just any bread line.  It was a bread line of blacks in front of a giant billboard of a white family driving in their automobile with the caption:  "There's no way like the American way."  

In one shot, Bourke-White captured the damage inflicted by the flood and the Depression, as well as the inconsistencies of the American dream.  As Life's Ben Cosgrove noted: 

"...that picture has, for generations, been the Great Depression photo, somehow distilling in one frame the anguish that defined the economic cataclysm of the Twenties and Thirties."

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Spectators Watching Negro Elks Parade

"Therefore, this black city within a city exerted a magnetic pull for blacks from all over the world.  Harlem loomed large as the 'symbol of liberty' and 'a promised land' in the black imagination."
(Monique Taylor, Between Heaven and Hell)

The Great Migration, the movement of Blacks from the American South to the North, which had started during the First World War, was in full bloom.  Harlem was one of the most famous of all of the black neighbourhoods in the North.  Author Locke explained:  "Harlem has to play for the new Negro the same role as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia."  Harlem rose to the occasion:  it had experienced a Renaissance in the 1920's and early 1930's during which blacks had created a social and cultural life of their own.  Part of Harlem's social scene were the Elks, similar to the Masons, who met in a local lodge.  

On August 22, 1939, the Elks held one of New York's biggest parades of the decade.  Blacks gathered at an ornate three storey building on Lenox Avenue in Harlem to watch an Elks Parade.  Spectators poked their heads out of windows, perched on balconies and sat on front porches.  Under the blazing sun, men rolled up their shirt sleeves and women sported parasols.  Children sat on the curb out front to get a better view.  The parade would be one of the last innocent times in New York City for within ten days war would break out in Europe and within two and a quarter years, America would join in.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Charles Lindbergh Pays a Visit to Crowd in England

"Not since the Armistice of 1918 has Paris witnessed a downright demonstration of popular enthusiasm and excitement equal to that displayed by the throngs flocking to the boulevards for news of the American flier, whose personality has captured the hearts of the Parisian multitude."
(New York Times, May 21, 1927.)

The Parisian multitude waited anxiously at Le Bourget airport on that foggy night of May 21, 1927, for the arrival of the pilot, Charles Lindbergh.  Orteig had offered a 25,000 dollar prize to the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.  Two French aviators had tried a couple of weeks before but had disappeared. Now it was the American's turn.  

Automobiles jammed the French boulevards ten abreast.  Thousands of spectators had already been waiting for six or seven hours at Le Bourget for the arrival of the Ameircan pilot.  Darkness had fallen, the wind had picked up and a few stars had appeared.  But still there was no sign of the Spirit of St. Louis.  The drone of an engine broke the silence and the crowd was ready to erupt in cheers.  However, it was only a plane from across the English Channel.  People were beginning to wonder if Charles Lindbergh had disappeared.

Finally, at 10:15 pm, another plane appeared in the sky above Le Bourget, this one a white and gray monoplane.  It was Lindbergh!  Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis skillfully.  The crowd cheered "Vive Lindbergh!" and "Vive l'Americain!"

With unkempt hair and bags under his eyes after a 33 hour journey, the American pilot exclaimed "Well, I made it!"  He attempted to get out of his plane, but several men were ready to pull him out of the cockpit, hoist him on their shoulders, and parade him around the air field.  The enthusiastic crowd, unable to contain itself, broke through the lines of bayonet carrying soldiers, through the ranks of policemen, through the iron barrier, to engulf the new hero.

In order to prevent a complete mob scene, two men whisked Lieutenant Lindbergh away in a Renault automobile.  In the meantime the mob now seized the opportunity to steal souvenirs from his plane; anything that was removable was taken.  

Lindbergh was a celebrity overnight.  He received 700 cablegrams congratulating him on his successful flight. Still riding a high from the flight, he stayed in Paris for a week, then flew to Brussels, Belgium, then to London, England.  There, he was greeted by 150,000 fans.  A photographer captured an aerial photograph of his London reception.  

Lindbergh sailed home on the USS Memphis along with his disassembled plane.  Parisians would never forget his feat.  The world would never be the same.  

Spirit of St. Louis, June 1927, London, England courtesy