4 Dark Days in America

Reply Sun 12 Sep, 2004 06:30 am
4 Dark Days in America

On Saturday, Americans will pause to remember September 11, 2001. To mark the anniversary of that dark day, we remember four other dark days from America's past--and the strength that eventually emerged from their shadows.

December 7, 1941

Star-spangled banner yet waving

One sunny Sunday morning in the tropical paradise of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, more than 2,000 U.S. servicemen died in a war they didn't even know they were fighting. The Japanese had meticulously planned their two-hour strike on Pearl Harbor to cause maximum damage. Waves of planes conducted nearly simultaneous bombing runs. Some strafed Oahu airfields to destroy the aircraft parked there. Others bombed and torpedoed the 130 vessels moored in the harbor itself.

Though tensions between the United States and Japan had run high all year, the attack caught U.S. forces almost completely off-guard. Still, scores of Americans proved their valor in the only battle they would ever fight, manning their battle stations despite appalling carnage and orders to abandon ship.

On the U.S.S. Arizona, which had arrived in Pearl Harbor just the day before, sailors were deep in battle when an armor-piercing bomb weighing nearly a ton smashed into the deck and ignited the forward magazine. The end came shockingly fast for 1,177 men. A huge explosion broke the battleship in two, and the Arizona sank in nine minutes.

Pearl Harbor gave the Japanese a huge military advantage. Their attack sunk five battleships and damaged three more. It also destroyed a half-dozen light cruisers and destroyers and 188 aircraft. In a stroke of luck for Americans, however, the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were not in port and so escaped the attack. Their survival would come to haunt Japanese military planners.

As news spread across the United States, people were shocked at the sneak attack and horrified by the loss of life: 2,402 dead and 1,178 wounded. On December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a declaration of war, and men all over the country volunteered for active duty. The U.S. then embarked on a four-year mission that would change the lives of nearly every American and place the nation squarely on the world stage.

October 29, 1929

When the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange rang on October 29, 1929--Black Tuesday--the market lay in ruins. So did many an investor. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down almost 12 percent. The day before, it had bled more than 13 percent. Wall Street has seen worse days. On October 19, 1987, the Dow shed nearly 23 percent in a single day. But before long, that market had rounded up the bulls and regained its lost ground.

Not so in 1929. The brief rally that followed the crash quickly proved to be what traders call a dead-cat bounce. The Dow sank to new lows in November, then sank and sank some more. By the time it hit bottom--in 1932--the market had shed nearly 90 percent of its value. Not until 1954 would the Dow again touch its 1929 peak.

Worse yet, the stock market crash poured kerosene on an already flammable financial house. Just as overextended investors lost their shirts, poorly regulated banks saw their assets disappear, either in the crash itself or in the crush of jittery depositors demanding their cash. By 1933, 11,000 of the United States' 25,000 banks had closed. Consumers stopped spending, businesses stopped producing, and the economic system slipped into coma. By 1932, U.S. manufacturers produced half of what they had in 1929, while a quarter of American workers had no job.

Government only made the crisis worse. Standard policy at the time was to let the economy sweat out financial fever. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon said, "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate ... People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people." Yet the depression that followed the crash of 1929 was an order of magnitude worse than any previous economic crisis.

More than a decade later, spurred by massive wartime spending, the American economy finally recovered. But not before government completely changed its approach, shifting to hands-on economic policies and programs that persist even today.

September 17, 1862

In the early dawn of September 17, 1862, on a ridge near the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union artillery received orders to commence firing on Confederate infantry taking positions in the nearby cornfields. So began the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

The tide of the battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, as Southerners called it) shifted constantly. Confederate sharpshooters inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Union army. Union artillery, in turn, pounded Confederate positions in the corn with fire that mowed entire fields to the ground. At times, the fighting was so intense that men had to stop shooting because they couldn't see their targets through the smoke.

After repulsing several Union charges, the Confederate line finally broke in the middle. But Union General George McClellan cautiously kept his reserves in check, allowing Confederate General Robert E. Lee to gather his defeated army and withdraw from the battlefield. After a truce, the battle's enormous toll became clear. More than 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing.

More Americans died at Antietam than at Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, or Normandy. By some estimates, more Americans died at Antietam than in the entire Revolutionary War. Scholars have argued that either side could have won the Civil War that day. If McClellan had sent his remaining forces into the fray, Lee's army might have been forced to surrender. A Confederate victory would have put Lee on the doorstep of Washington, D.C., pressuring Lincoln to seek a truce. Instead, the war dragged on for almost three more years.

A Late Summer Day, 1619

The year 1619 falls almost outside the scope of U.S. history. But the longest and darkest chapter in American history arguably began one late summer day of that year, when a Dutch ship put in at Jamestown to replenish its supplies--and in so doing delivered the first African slaves to the American colonies. Those first slaves arrived by sad historical accident. The Dutch captain and his crew had stolen some 20 captive Africans from a Spanish slave ship, and they traded their ill-gotten "goods" at Jamestown for food.

Though the new arrivals certainly received no warm welcome--they were promptly sold at auction--documents from the time suggest that the settlers weren't quite sure what to make of them. Records from the 1620s list the first African-Americans as "servants," suggesting that they may have been considered "indentured" rather than "enslaved." Later records show an increasing number of free blacks in the colonies. Yet by 1640, a court had condemned at least one African slave to "serve his master . . . for the time of his natural life."

During the next two centuries, lifelong race-based slavery would become an evil American institution. By the 1660s, Southern colonies were writing slave codes and confiscating the lands of free African-Americans--setting the stage for conflicts to come: race against race, state against state, the nation's founding ideal of freedom against the harsh reality of American slavery.

The slavery issue was already hotly contested at the time of the founders. George Washington, who claimed that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]," entertained a proposal on the subject from his friend Lafayette.

The French general suggested that the two men establish a small estate together, where they would "free the negroes, and use them only as tenants," to prove that a freer system could work, and work well. Lafayette knew that many of his contemporaries would think the idea crazy. But "if it be a wild scheme," he wrote, "I had rather be mad in this way, than to be thought wise in the other task."
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