We tend to think of New Year’s Day as one of parades, college football games, replacing last year’s wall calendar, and for those who reveled too much the night before a day of aspirin and ice packs.
However, some very significant events happened on New Year’s day throughout American history. Here is a sampling to get 2021 off to a trivia-based start:
January 1, 1735 – Listen (or at least read on) my children and you shall hear, of the birth of Bostonian Paul Revere. He grew up to fight in the French and Indian War before becoming a silversmith. Revere’s true passion? American independence from the British. He joined the Sons of Liberty, harassing the Redcoats during the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
With rebellion against the crown building in 1775, the colonists got word that British soldiers planned to march into Massachusetts to seize armories at nearby Concord. They developed a system to alert them once they determined how the Redcoats would invade, posting lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church to indicate “one if by land, two if by sea.”
As the clock struck 10 p.m. and with one lantern glowing, Revere made his legendary “midnight ride” – on a borrowed horse – to warn the citizenry that the “British are coming.” He made it to Lexington and then started toward Concord. The British captured him there, confiscated the horse, and then released him. He walked back to Lexington.
Regardless, Revere was instrumental in alerting the colonial “minutemen” who inflicted heavy casualties amongst the British at Lexington and Concord, the first two battles of the American Revolution.
January 1, 1863 – After issuing an earlier version of his Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln made it official on January 1, 1863.
His proclamation, however, applied only to the states in rebellion during the Civil War. The proclamation signified only a symbolism. The United States did not formally abolish slavery until the war ended on April 9, 1865; the southern states rejoined the Union and ratified the 13th Amendment on December 5, 1865.
January 1, 1942 – Less than a month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, formally drawing the United States into World War II, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov, and T.V. Soong of China met in Washington, D.C. There, they signed a document pledging unity in the fight against the aggression of Germany, Italy, and Japan. A day later, 22 more countries signed on as well. In fact, Roosevelt called the members of the pact the “United Nations.”
The name stuck even though the organization’s purpose evolved as the war progressed and victory grew imminent. Subsequent meetings – in 1944 at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. and in 1945 at the Crimean resort city of Yalta – culminated in the creation of the United Nations at a conference in San Francisco. It set the stage for a postwar alliance by the same name.
The U.N. now includes 153 nations, with the mission that includes maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, and promoting sustainable development of underdeveloped nations around the world.
On January 1, 1946 – As a lone American soldier on Corregidor catalogued the locations of the graves of American soldiers killed there during World War II, a group of Japanese soldiers came out of nowhere. They surrendered to him, white flag and all.
The war had ended formally on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese signed documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. These soldiers, however, did not know they had lost until one of them left the tunnel they called home for months, and found a newspaper detailing their surrender.
January 1, 1959 – Cuba ultimately traded one dictator for another on this day. Fulgencio Batista, whose corrupt and brutal administration crumbled under the weight of the revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, fled the island nation with cronies in tow. Castro claimed power six days later, bringing with him a Marxist regime that aligned with the Soviet Union and nearly started World War III.
Three years later, the Soviets had placed warheads in Cuba with enough fire power to destroy much of America’s Eastern Seaboard. The U.S. established a blockade keeping more Soviet ships from reaching Cuba, and the Cuban Missile Crisis became a test of wills between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev.
American B-52s armed with nuclear warheads remained airborne, waiting for orders to obliterate Moscow.
The threat ended when Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, pursued back-channel negotiations with the Soviet ambassador. The U.S. agreed not to attack Cuba and to pull missiles from Turkey. In return, the Soviets removed their weaponry from Cuba. The nations also agreed to improve communications, which they did by establishing the “hot line,” a direct phone line connecting the White House and the Kremlin to avoid any future “misunderstandings.”
While the tensions between the two superpowers eased, relations between the U.S. and Castro did not. Castro continued to run his nation with an Iron Curtain-influenced fist until his death in 2016.
January 1, 1966 – As the Vietnam War escalated, advance elements of the 1st Marine Division arrived in Chu Lai, preparing for the arrival of the entire division in March; it would grow to almost 20,000 Marines over the next five years.
The 1st Division fought alongside the South Vietnamese to retake the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968. By the time the division returned to California in 1971, the oldest and most decorated Marines division added more respect and recognition: 20 earned the Medal of Honor. Twice, the division received the Presidential Unit Citation for gallantry, along with the Vietnam Cross and Vietnam Civil Action awards.
January 1, 2000 – This was the day when some folks predicted doom, gloom, and serious technical difficulties. Experts claimed older computers would stop working because manufacturers failed to program the internal clocks and calendars to run beyond 23 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds on December 31, 1999. In reality, it sold tons of new personal computers. Merry Christmas, right? Experts told those owners who did not buy new ones to shut their older units down before midnight and hope for the best.
The U.S. military recognized the potential problems in 1996 and began preparing for it by upgrading its systems. Then, in 1999, a startling thought occurred: What if the Russians are not as prepared as we are?
“There was, they thought, a very real possibility that some sort of error—most likely a radar glitch—might trigger a fatal overreaction on the Russian side, leading to an unprovoked nuclear attack on the United States,” the New Yorker wrote in a December 2019 story.
In December 1999, the Defense Department sent to Moscow a communications specialist already entrusted with maintaining an emergency teletype system connecting the White House and Kremlin. There, he set up a system of satellite phones that would keep the two governments in contact as the New Year’s events played out, according to the magazine.
Meanwhile, cultists, and other doomsayers predicted attacks by terrorists and mass suicides.
So what happened? Nothing of note along any those lines. The Americans and Russians avoided a nuclear holocaust. Across the world, revelers reveled as usual. Presumably, others stayed home, gaming on their brand-new computers.
Y2K became the best dud anyone could have imagined.
Happy New Year!