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History's Happenings for August 20

Alaska Discovered

On August 20, 1741, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer representing the Russian government, discovered the region that came to be known as Alaska. (Like most such "discoveries", one has to bear in mind that the native Aleuts already knew it was there.)

Russian fur traders followed Bering, and maintained dominance over the region until it was sold to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million.

"Alaska" comes from the Aleut word for "mainland". The sea that Bering presumably crossed to arrive in Alaska bears his name.

Birth of President Benjamin Harrison

The twenty-third president of the United States was born on August 20, 1833 on the North Bend, Ohio farm of his famous grandfather, former president William Henry Harrison.

Young Harrison undertook to practice law in Indiana, but joined the army early in the Civil War and was eventually promoted to brigadier general. After the war he returned to Indiana and was active in the local Republican Party. Defeated for governor, he became a U.S. senator from that state in 1881.

Run as a compromise candidate for the presidency in 1888, Harrison won the election despite having received fewer popular votes than incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland. Such were -- and potentially are -- the vagaries of the electoral college system, which helps assure a voice to less populous states.

President Harrison yielded to the free-spending habits of his Republican Congress -- a twist on today's party tendencies -- which was still mired in the spoils system. Among the noteworthy legislation of the administration was the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890). The McKinley Tariff Act was also passed, restricting importation in a paradox which later saw President McKinley become a global economist. Six states were added during the administration.

President Harrison also proclaimed the use of the first Pledge of Allegiance, to be recited in public schools on Columbus Day, October 12, 1892. The original wording was a bit different than today:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Another victim, so it seems, of the political engine which produced him, Harrison referred to the White House as "my jail". He served only one term and died on March 13, 1901.

Johnson Declares Civil War Over

(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
On the other hand, if you'd like to try writing
one  ... send it in! )

LBJ Inks Huge Anti-Poverty Bill

(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
On the other hand, if you'd like to try writing
one  ... send it in! )

Russia Invades Czechoslovakia

Soviet troops moved into Czechoslovakia under cover of night August 20-21, 1968, in order to suppress the reforms instituted by the new first secretary of the Czech Communist Party, Alexander Dubček.

When Dubček succeeded Stalinist first secretary Antonin Novotny earlier in the year, Czechoslovakia moved to the front lines of Communist reform, abolishing censorship, decentralizing economic decision-making, and denouncing Stalinism.

As always, even this small overture to freedom had its price. The "Prague Spring" ended with the Soviet invasion which, like Hitler's invasion thirty years earlier, stirred too little righteous indignation in the free world.

Dubček was ousted in 1969, and replaced with hard-liner Gustav Husak, who reversed all the reforms. The Czech people waited another twenty years for freedom.

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