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The number of the new year always has a little magic in it for me, at least until I get to the point of entering it more or less automatically on letters and checks. It’s special, this new friend, and for a historian—at least this historian—it invites looking up its relatives from the past for odd contrasts or striking connections.
There’s lots to find; a Google search pops up some big events for January 2. Perhaps most momentously, on this date in 1492 Moorish Grenada surrendered to the Christian monarchs of Spain, completing the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula and setting the stage for the purge of Jews and the voyage of Columbus later that year. As an omen for the 20th century January 2, 1905 works well in marking the Russian surrender of Port Arthur to Japan after a long siege, a harbinger of their total defeat later in the year. That set off further reverberations: a practice revolution back in Moscow and a fundamental shift in the geo-politics of the western Pacific.
Cheat back one day and turning points spill out all over the place. On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On the same date in 1959 Fidel Castro finally ousted Fulgencio Batista as ruler of Cuba (you’ll recall that dramatic scene from Godfather II). New Year’s Day 1975 saw Nixon administration nabobs John Ehrlichman, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, and John Mitchell convicted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the matter of Watergate. On New Year’s Day 1994 NAFTA went into effect; in 2002, the Euro coin was first issued. How are those market-integration ventures working out?
Cheat forward a day to January 3 and we see Martin Luther excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521. (“Exsurge Domine,” Arise Oh Lord, the papal bull pleaded from the Psalms.) On January 3, 1777, George Washington won one of his few battles in the War for Independence, at Princeton; the shell marks are still visible on the university’s Nassau Hall. The same date in 1920 marked arguably the worst deal in baseball history, as the Boston Red Sox sold star pitcher Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, just in time for the juiced-up ball of the 1920s to make him famous as a hitter. In 1962 we had another excommunication, this time Pope John XXIII booting Fidel Castro. That didn’t take long, did it? And wasn’t the Right Reverend Roncalli supposed to be a liberal, what with Vatican II and all?
To bring a little discipline to the game it’s good to check out what was happening on January 2 at more defined dates. Let’s choose a century, a half century, and a quarter century ago. On January 2, 1916, the only notable action on the Western front of World War I involved the bombardment of Hartmannsweilerkopf, in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. Turned out to be a fading gesture at that site, where the struggle had gone on for most of 1915. Some 30,000 had fallen, mostly French, but no decisive breakthrough had been achieved. The commanders on both sides therefore turned their eyes elsewhere, drawing up the plans that would make 1916 the worst year yet of the already awful Great War. The nearly full-year battle of Verdun was the German initiative, already being mapped out that January; the battle of the Somme would be the British counter-stroke, starting in July. For all the million casualties these and other actions entailed, the same stalemate remained in place at year’s end.
By contrast, the Middle-Eastern front was truly alive in 1916. Or dead, if you were British. Encircled, shelled, frozen, literally drowning in their trenches under torrential rains, the British on January 2, 1916 were in the process of evacuating Gallipoli, finishing Winston Churchill’s dream of taking the fight directly to the Ottoman Empire. That empire, in fact, was simultaneously hammering another force of 8,000 British and colonial Indian troops at Kut-el-Amara, a hundred miles south of Baghdad. After a long siege, the British commander would abjectly surrender his whole force that April. A very grim day in the annals of British military history—until the Somme that summer.
So, a hundred years ago, the champions of Western civilization said they were battling for its survival against the demonic hordes on the Continent (for so each alliance defamed the other) and along the Tigris and Euphrates. Some connection to the present there. But let’s move on to fifty years ago, 1966. On the second day of the year U.S. troops invaded the Mekong delta in Vietnam for the first time, while President Lyndon Johnson avowed in a public address to stay the course for freedom there—and added 8,000 more troops to the mix. That raised the American total in theater to 190,000. On a not-unrelated note, Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters conducted the first Acid Test, the debut of LSD in popular culture and a foretaste, so to speak, of sundry other hallucinogens to come. That week the Georgia legislature refused to seat duly elected representative and civil rights veteran Julian Bond because of his alleged anti-American militancy. Abroad, Pakistanis and Indians were in negotiations to resolve the issues that had led them to war the previous April. A coup and counter-coup in Nigeria were underway that left the country in the hands of a military regime.
Finally, a quarter-century ago—January 2, 1991. The Gulf War was in full swing, with an American-led coalition about to complete its salvation of Kuwaiti oil barons. Full-blown Operation Desert Storm would commence in two weeks’ time to take the fight to Saddam (President Bush I with his New England accent made the name sound close to ‘Satan’) Hussein in Iraq itself, but world environmental leaders were more worried about the harmful effects of all those burning Kuwaiti oil wells. The investigation into Charles Keating, kingpin of the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s and owner of no fewer than five U.S. Senators, continued on toward his eventual conviction of racketeering and fraud. His crimes cost the taxpayer $3 billion; he served 4.5 years in prison. The finance scandal did, or did not, have much to do with the recession that was officially acknowledged on this same date to have descended on the U.S. economy. Not to worry. USSR Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze warned of the chaos that would ensue should the Soviet Union disintegrate, as it did later in the year. Moscow prices sharply increased as to fulfill, and anticipate, his prophecy. Things in Russia would stumble along until President Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999, opening the way for saving strongman Vladimir Putin. President Bush I’s son, George II, would later gaze into Pooty-Poot’s soul and discern there a kindred spirit. As did The Donald two weeks ago.
Oh yeah. On the Eastern front of World War I on January 2, 1916? Heavy fighting was reported in Czernowitz, the capital of the Austrian duchy of Bukovina. It went over to Romania at the end of the war, only to see the USSR seize it in 1940, the Germans invade in 1941, and the Soviet Union take it back in 1945. They would later cede it to Ukraine, in which happy land it remains to this day. The city’s largest people group in the interwar era—the Jews, at 27%—vanished into death camps or fled to Israel, where their descendants today occupy troubled turf of their own.
And with those echoes, gentle reader, a very happy 2016!