This week, something momentous happened. Whether or not it made the textbooks, it most certainly made history. Join the HISTORY This Week podcast as we turn back the clock to meet the people, visit the places and witness the moments that led us to where we are today.
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August 4, 1987. The Federal Communication Commission’s leadership has come together in Washington D.C. to decide the fate of a vital issue: fairness. For the previous 40 years, the FCC has attempted to ensure that TV and radio broadcasters present both sides of the political issues discussed on their airwaves. But by the 1980s, the political landscape has changed, and the Fairness Doctrine will soon be no more. Today, we talk to two of the major players who fought on both sides of this great debate to explain what the Fairness Doctrine actually did, why it died, and where exactly that leaves us today.
Convert or Leave
July 31, 1492. In cities, towns and villages across late medieval Spain, whole districts have emptied out. Houses abandoned, stores closed, and synagogues—which until recently had been alive with singing and prayer—now sit quiet. Exactly four months earlier, the King and Queen of Spain issued an edict: by royal decree, all Jewish people in Spain must convert to Catholicism or leave the country, for good. Why were the Jews expelled from Spain? How did Spaniards, and then the world, start to think of religion as something inherited, not just by tradition, but by blood? And how does this moment help us understand the challenge of assimilation today?
Public Enemy #1
July 22, 1934. John Dillinger, America's most famous outlaw, is gunned down by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger's death is the final act in a crime spree that involved multiple prison breaks, dozens of bank robberies, and more than one violent shootout. But despite all the money Dillinger stole and the deaths he caused along the way, the public still adored him. How did a man named “Public Enemy #1” become a national darling? And how did the pursuit of John Dillinger make way for the modern FBI?
Destroyer of Worlds
July 15, 1945. It happened within a millionth of a second. In the New Mexico desert at 5:30 in the morning, a group of scientists watched in anticipation as the countdown began. It was silent at first, yet hot and unbelievably bright. Then came the sound. The first-ever atomic bomb explosion... was a success. How did scientists working on the Manhattan Project create what was then the most powerful weapon in history? And how did the bomb’s existence forever change our sense of what human beings are capable of?
July 10, 1943. 150,000 British and American soldiers storm the beaches of Sicily in the first Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe. But the Nazis…aren’t really there to put up a fight. Hitler thought the invasion was coming for Greece. The Nazis have been tricked by two British Intelligence officers and a covert deception plan. How did their operation— which involved a corpse, false identity, and a single eyelash—change the course of WWII?
The Big Stink
July 30th, 1858. London is a world city, a global center of trade and commerce. But there’s something less glamorous going on in this bustling metropolis: the smell. Every inch of the city smells like rotting, human waste. And this smell is actually killing people. But no one is doing anything about it. Until today. How did short-term thinking lead to a deadly problem? And how did an unlikely leader finally get London out of this very literal mess?
Pride & Protest
June 28, 1970. Hundreds of people start to gather on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village for an anniversary celebration. One year earlier, in that very same spot, the Stonewall Inn was raided by police, sparking a revolution. Now, LGBTQ+ people have come here again, not to riot but to march in celebration of who they are and just how far they have come – something that might have been unthinkable if Stonewall hadn’t taken place. How did the Stonewall riot have such a huge impact on queer activism, and how did the community go from raid to parade in just a year?
Freedom Summer, 1964
June 21, 1964. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights activists in their early twenties, are reported missing in Mississippi. They are part of the first wave of Freedom Summer, a massive voter registration campaign in the racist heart of the South, Mississippi. The first interracial movement of its kind, the project was led by black southern organizers and staffed by both black and white volunteers. The movement’s leader, Bob Moses, joins this episode to explain how the disappearance of those three men brought the Civil Rights movement into the homes of white Americans – and what Freedom Summer can teach us about moving the wheels of progress today.
"Have You No Decency, Sir?"
June 9, 1954. Senator Joseph McCarthy has accused the United States Army of having communists within its midst. After rising to power during a time of great fear in America, his name has become synonymous with anti-communism – and with baseless, outrageous accusations. But today, five simple words will take down one of the most notorious men in American political history. What made McCarthy so powerful in the first place? And how did that very same thing eventually bring him down?
A Century of Stigma for Black America and Mental Health
June 1, 1840. U.S. Marshals are going door to door conducting the sixth-ever census in the United States. This year something is different – this is the very first time the U.S. government is asking a question about mental health. But the results are tragic, and long-lasting. Twenty-one years before the Civil War, with over two million slaves in America, this question will uphold a racist and pernicious lie that is already spreading throughout America: that freedom causes black people to go insane.
A Gilded Age Apocalypse
May 31, 1889. It’s raining in Johnstown, PA, causing some small flooding. But the townsfolk were used to it – this city of 30,000 was nestled in a valley between two rivers. What happened next was something every person in Johnstown feared, but hoped would never come true. The old dam at the millionaires’ resort, high up in the mountains, had failed... and unimaginable destruction was on its way.
Captain Kidd and the Nazis
May 23, 1701. Captain William Kidd is hanged at Execution Dock in London. His death sentence cements his legacy as one of history’s most notorious pirates, but he went to the gallows claiming to be an innocent man. And he may have been telling the truth. Nonetheless, his execution began a worldwide ripple effect that would change the high seas forever and ultimately help prosecute one of the most infamous Nazis that ever lived.
To Fight a Virus, and Win
May 14, 1796. Edward Jenner puts a theory to the test: can contracting one disease save you from another? Jenner goes down in history as the man who brought us one of the greatest advances in modern medicine: the vaccine. Its discovery led to the eradication of smallpox, a virus that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone and one of two diseases to ever be defeated. But the story of that first vaccine begins long before Jenner was even born. How did an unlikely trio in Colonial America pave the way for Jenner’s life-saving innovation? And how did a strange sequence of events help us defeat one of the oldest and deadliest diseases in human history?
Beethoven's Silent Symphony
May 7, 1824. One of the great musical icons in history, Ludwig Van Beethoven, steps onto stage at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna. The audience is electric, buzzing with anticipation for a brand new symphony from the legendary composer. But there’s a rumor on their minds, something only a few know for certain... that Beethoven is deaf. He is about to conduct the debut of his Ninth Symphony—featuring the now-famous ‘Ode to Joy’—yet Beethoven can barely hear a thing. How was it possible for him to conduct? And more importantly, how could he have composed one of the greatest works in the history of classical music?
The Hunt for the Hunley
May 3, 1995. The Hunley has been missing for over 100 years. This Civil War submarine and all eight of her crew disappeared after completing the first successful submarine attack ever. When a team of divers finally locates the wreck in the mid-'90s, it seems the mystery has been solved, but what they find is more perplexing than the sub’s disappearance. The boat is undamaged, and the crew is still at their battle stations. What sank the Hunley? And why didn’t her crew try to escape?
When the Environment United Us
April 22, 1970. Nearly 20 million Americans come out in solidarity for one of the largest mass movements of the century. It was called Earth Day. And 50 years later, we still celebrate this day. But in 1970, this call to action crossed the aisle and brought major change to Washington, a feat that seems almost impossible today. Why did that first-ever Earth Day bring such a huge number of Americans—from across the political spectrum—out into the streets? And what might it take to unite the country again?
"Houston We've Had a Problem"
April 14, 1970. Apollo 13 is a quarter-million miles from Earth, speeding towards the Moon when a sudden explosion rocks the ship. Against all odds, the astronauts pull off one of the most remarkable survival missions in NASA history. On the 50th anniversary of this harrowing flight, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell explains exactly what it took to save his spaceship.
The First Flight Around the World
April 6, 1924. Four planes rest in the water, preparing for take-off. At 8:30 AM, they pick up speed and hit the air. Eight pilots have begun a dangerous mission: to be the first to fly around the world. This will change our future in a way that few could see in 1924. What did it take to complete this historic flight? And, when this new technology went global, what were the unintended consequences?
The Deadliest Pandemic in Modern History
April 5, 1918. The first mention of a new influenza outbreak in Kansas appears in a public health report. That strain, later called the Spanish Flu, would go on to kill at least 50 million people worldwide. In a time before widespread global travel, how did this disease spread so far, so fast? And what does it teach us about fighting pandemics today?
When Basketball Meets Jim Crow
March 28, 1939. Two teams are facing off for the final game of World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, the first professional tournament to feature both white and black basketball teams. This is several years before the start of the NBA, and Jim Crow segregation was still the law of the land in many parts of the country. The New York Rens, an all-black team, have made it to this championship, but their road to the top was anything but easy. Who were the Rens? And how did they fight segregation and change the history of basketball?
How Lady Luck Saved Vegas
March 19, 1931. Las Vegas is a small, desert town of a few thousand. And it’s not doing so well. In fact, people are worried it might turn into a ghost town. But then something big happens: Nevada decides to legalize gambling. And the ground begins to shift beneath the city...but no one notices, at least not at first. So, how did Vegas become Vegas?
The Real Assassination of Caesar
The Ides of March, 44 BC. Ancient Rome’s most powerful dictator, Julius Caesar, is running late to a senate meeting. When he arrives, senators surround him and stab him 23 times. The assassination of Caesar has been told and re-told for centuries, but the facts are wilder than the legend. What really happened on the Ides of March? And why do we tell this story over and over?
Lionel, Stevie and Tina Walk into a Studio…
March 7th, 1985. “We Are the World” hits the shelves. It's an instant hit, breaking the top of the charts and making music history. This one song has the star power of 45 of the biggest singers of the era: Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan - just to name a few. And with their power combined, the song raised millions of dollars to help combat a devastating famine in Ethiopia and Sudan. What did it take to bring all these icons together, and did this song actually make a difference?
The DNA Debate
February 28, 1953. Two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, burst into a bar and exclaim that they have discovered the secret of life. But there was another person involved in the discovery of DNA’s double helix, a scientist named Rosalind Franklin. Why didn’t she get any credit, and what does her story tell us about the politics of discovery itself?
A Mole in the CIA
February 21, 1994. Early in the morning, FBI agents assemble near the home of Aldrich Ames. They wait for him to leave his house and then they pounce, arresting one of the deadliest double agents in CIA history. He received almost $2 million from the KGB, selling CIA secrets and lethally betraying undercover agents for years. Who is the real Aldrich Ames? And why does a spy turn on their own country?
The Legacy of an Oscar
February 11, 1940. Hattie McDaniel becomes the first-ever African American to be nominated for, and then win, an Oscar. Her legacy is complicated. And the Oscar itself has been missing, mysteriously, for almost fifty years. What did it take for McDaniel to win? And, 80 Oscar ceremonies later, how do we understand her legacy today?
When Black Men Won the Vote
February 3, 1870. The 15th Amendment is ratified, which establishes the right to vote for black men in America. While Jim Crow laws would grip the south by 1877, there was a brief, seven-year window of opportunity. Half a million black voters turned out at the polls, and 2,000 black officials are estimated to have been elected during this time. What did this moment of progress look like? And how do those votes still impact our lives 150 years later?
January 27, 1945. This week, we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany's largest concentration and extermination camps. Auschwitz has since become a symbol for the Holocaust itself, but what did liberation actually mean for its survivors - and is the full story being forgotten?
The Apple Ad That Changed the World
January 22, 1984. Apple launches the first Macintosh computer, with a showstopping Super Bowl commercial. The ad itself was revolutionary, but the product it launched almost single-handedly brought computers into the mainstream, changing the world as we know it.
The Great Boston Molasses Flood
January 15, 1919. Boston PD receives a call: “Send all available rescue personnel...there's a wave of molasses coming down Commercial Street." The bizarre flood decimated Boston's North End. How did it happen? And why does it still affect us all today?
Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined...
January 11th, 1964. The US Surgeon General announces: smoking is killing us. It’s an announcement that changed the course of American public health – and took years to finally come out. But it was only the beginning of an uphill battle to take down an all-American pastime. This week we ask: why did it take so long for the public to learn this deadly truth? And why has it taken even longer for us to accept it?
Introducing: HISTORY This Week
This week, something momentous happened. Whether or not it made the textbooks, it most certainly made history. Join HISTORY This Week as we turn back the clock to meet the people, visit the places and witness the moments that led us to where we are today.