May 31, 1819 is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island, and raised in Brooklyn.
Although Whitman loved music and books, he left school at the age of 14 to become a journeyman printer. Later, he worked as a teacher, journalist, editor, carpenter, and held various other jobs to support his writing. In 1855, he self-published a slim volume of poems called Leaves of Grass, which carried his picture but not his name. With this book, Whitman hoped to become a truly American poet, as envisioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1843).
Whitman spent much time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, attending cultural events, taking long walks, and sometimes riding on coaches and ferries as an excuse to talk with people. In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass included his “Sundown Poem,” later called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
In 1862, Whitman’s brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went to care for him. He spent the rest of the war comforting both Union and Confederate soldiers. His poem “Oh Captain, My Captain,” mourned Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman worked for several government departments after the war until he suffered a stroke in 1873. He spent the rest of his life in Camden, New Jersey, and continued to issue revised editions of Leaves of Grass until shortly before his death in 1892.
On May 30, 1988, three U.S. presidents in three different years take significant steps toward ending the Cold War.
Beginning on May 28, 1988, President Ronald Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for a four-day summit in Russia. Upon his election in 1980, Reagan had abandoned Nixon, Ford and Carter’s attempts to diffuse political tensions between the two superpowers and instead instigated an enormous build-up of arms and rhetoric against the Soviet Union. The Soviets could not keep up with the U.S.’s massive defense spending and this, along with Gorbachev’s policy of granting increasing freedom to Soviet citizens (glasnost), helped to erode hard-line communism within Russia.
In a remarkable and symbolic address to a group of Moscow University students on May 31, Reagan stood in front of an enormous bust of Lenin and spoke openly about freedom, technology, creativity and his desire to see the Berlin Wall torn down. He told the students your generation is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope, when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free.
READ MORE: The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech
Two years to the day after Reagan’s 1988 visit, and just about a year after the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev in the United States to discuss the reunification of East and West Germany. Bush and Gorbachev outlined a plan that would unite the separate communist and democratic spheres into one nation not seen since World War II. In 1991, after an aborted communist coup against Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became president and the Soviet Union was officially declared over, dismantled and re-named Russia. Most of the former Soviet satellite territories were granted their independence. Russia then initiated tentative steps toward a capitalist economic system.
On this day in 1994, President Bill Clinton pledged continued cooperation with Russia in a New World Order, declaring that the U.S. would no longer point nuclear missiles at Russia, ending the antagonism and fear of mutually assured destruction that characterized the half-century-long Cold War between the two superpowers.
READ MORE: The Cold War Timeline
On May 31, 1941, the last of the Allies evacuate after 11 days of battling a successful German parachute invasion of the island of Crete. Crete is now Axis-occupied territory.
On the morning of May 20, some 3,000 members of Germany’s Division landed on Crete, which was patrolled and protected by more than 28,000 Allied troops and an almost equal number of Greek soldiers. The German invasion, although anticipated, was not taken seriously; the real fear was of an attack from the sea. Those initial 3,000 parachutists were reinforced—to the tune of an additional 19,000 men, arriving by parachute drop, glider, and troop carrier.
The Allies remained optimistic; many of the German soldiers who dropped from the sky died or were injured on impact. The rest were undersupplied and inexperienced. But by the May 26, British General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the defense of Crete, already reported that their position was hopeless. Evacuation of Allied troops began on the 28th. By the night of the 31st, the last of the Allies that would make it out had left the seaport of Sphakia; 5,000 men would be left behind in the hands of the Germans. The total loss of Allied land soldiers in the Cretan engagements was 1,742; a further 2,265 sailors were lost at sea. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been sunk. The Germans suffered a loss of about 4,000 men.
Strangely, Hitler, despite the victory, considered his “losses” too great to pursue further gains in the Mediterranean and finally drive Great Britain out of the area.
READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?
The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high Elizabeth Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on May 31, 1859.
After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster—the headquarters of the British Parliament—in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.
The name “Big Ben” originally just applied to the bell but later came to refer to the clock itself. Two main stories exist about how Big Ben got its name. Many claim it was named after the famously long-winded Sir Benjamin Hall, the London commissioner of works at the time it was built. Another famous story argues that the bell was named for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest of its kind.
Even after an incendiary bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons during the Second World War, Elizabeth Tower survived, and Big Ben continued to function. Its famously accurate timekeeping is regulated by a stack of coins placed on the clock’s huge pendulum, ensuring a steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night, all four of the clock’s faces, each one 23 feet across, are illuminated. A light above Big Ben is also lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.
READ MORE: That Time Big Ben Stopped
After two years of exploratory visits and friendly negotiations, Ford Motor Company signs a landmark agreement to produce cars in the Soviet Union on May 30, 1929.
The Soviet Union, which in 1928 had only 20,000 cars and a single truck factory, was eager to join the ranks of automotive production, and Ford, with its focus on engineering and manufacturing methods, was a natural choice to help. The always independent-minded Henry Ford was strongly in favor of his free-market company doing business with Communist countries. An article published in May 1929 in The New York Times quoted Ford as saying that “No matter where industry prospers, whether in India or China, or Russia, all the world is bound to catch some good from it.”
Signed in Dearborn, Michigan, on May 31, 1929, the contract stipulated that Ford would oversee construction of a production plant at Nizhny Novgorod, located on the banks of the Volga River, to manufacture Model A cars. An assembly plant would also start operating immediately within Moscow city limits. In return, the USSR agreed to buy 72,000 unassembled Ford cars and trucks and all spare parts to be required over the following nine years, a total of some $30 million worth of Ford products. Valery Meshlauk, vice chairman of the Supreme Council of National Economy, signed the Dearborn agreement on behalf of the Soviets. To comply with its side of the deal, Ford sent engineers and executives to the Soviet Union.
At the time the U.S. government did not formally recognize the USSR in diplomatic negotiations, so the Ford agreement was groundbreaking. (A week after the deal was announced the Soviet Union would announce deals with 15 other foreign companies, including E.I. du Pont de Nemours and RCA.) As Douglas Brinkley writes in “Wheels for the World,” his book on Henry Ford and Ford Motor, the automaker was firm in his belief that introducing capitalism was the best way to undermine communism. In any case, Ford’s assistance in establishing motor vehicle production facilities in the USSR would greatly impact the course of world events, as the ability to produce these vehicles helped the Soviets defeat Germany on the Eastern Front during World War II. In 1944, according to Brinkley, Stalin wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling Henry Ford “one of the world’s greatest industrialists” and expressing the hope that “may God preserve him.”
READ MORE: The Cars That Made America