Here are some major events that passed under the radar because, on the same day, something even greater (or at least, more noticeable) was happening. In some cases, the event might not have grabbed our attention anyway, but has proven its worth in hindsight.
Early in the twentieth century, new inventions would often be big news, as people excitedly paid attention to the technology that would soon change their lives. The installation of the first electric traffic lights in Cleveland was a good example – or it would have been, except that the previous day, Germany had invaded Belgium. In response, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and World War I was under way. Though the US wouldn’t join the war until 1917, all eyes were turned to Europe. For the record, those historic traffic lights, designed by James Hoge, had only two colors: red and green.
Political corruption in America was nothing new even in 1929, but it was unprecedented for a Presidential cabinet member to be sent to prison for his actions in office. In 1929, however, Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior under President Harding, was convicted of bribery for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall had accepted generous bribes from oil executives Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair, in return for which he had granted them control of U.S. Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming.
The subsequent investigation had shamed Fall. The experience could have been even more humiliating, however, except for the fact he was convicted a day after Black Thursday, when 13 million shares changed hands on Wall Street. Over the next few days, as Fall adjusted to life in prison, investors (and most other citizens) had more pressing problems, as the notorious Wall Street Crash wiped out more than $30 billion from the New York Stock Exchange (ten times greater than the annual budget of the federal government). Fall was released from jail after a year, to find himself heavily in debt and unemployable, in the Great Depression.
When General MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese on the U.S.S. Missouri, it was a time of celebration: the end of World War II. (Japan’s Emperor Hirohito had announced the surrender a few weeks earlier, but the treaty made it official.)
Given these circumstances, it was forgivable that few people noticed, in another part of Asia, as communist Chairman Hồ Chí Minh read another momentous document: the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam (now renamed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), declaring Vietnam independent from France. This was followed by an upsurge in violence between rival Vietnamese factions and French forces, forcing the British commander, General Sir Douglas Gracey, to declare martial law.
Despite negotiations, the conflict would continue – especially after 1950, when China and the Soviet Union backed Hồ’s government. Eventually, it would result in the Vietnam War, which led to millions of deaths. So on the day that one major conflict ended, the seeds were sown for another.
In the mid-1960s, it took a lot to upstage the Beatles. Tragically, one of the few people to achieve this dubious feat was President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas happened on the same day that, in Britain, the Beatles released their second album, With The Beatles.
Music historians believe that it forever changed rock albums, using songs hand-picked to complement each other (rather than a disparate collection of singles, B-sides and cover versions, as was the usual practice). The best songs included “I Wanna Be Your Man” (which also became the Rolling Stones’ first hit song), “Hold Me Tight” and “It Won’t Be Long.” The next year, with Beatlemania taking over the world, it became the first Beatles album available in the US – with a new title (Meet the Beatles) and a few replacement tracks – like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which didn’t make the original album because it was recorded as a single.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had a nasty Valentine’s Day message for British author Salman Rushdie in 1989. After Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was accused of blaspheming Islam, Khomeini decreed that the author “and all those involved in its publication” were sentenced to death. It was a shocking message to the world (and fortunately, one that has never been carried out).
But meanwhile, something of far greater long-term effect was happening in Cape Canaveral, where the first of 24 satellites of the Global Positioning System were placed into orbit. The GPS, of course, has since become a fact of life. At the time, however, it barely raised an eyebrow.
Have you ever had one of those days when everything happens? Take June 4, 1989 – the day the Ayatollah Khomeini died. Though he had provoked headlines four months earlier for his fatwa on Salman Rushdie (and had caused many more headlines over the past decade), the death of America’s public enemy number one was not the biggest story of the day in most western media. Nor were the first partially free elections in Poland, won by Lech Walesa and his Solidarność (solidarity) party. And nor was a gas explosion in Ufa, Russia, which derailed two trains, killing 575 people (including many children setting off for their summer holidays).
On most other days, any of these stories would have easily been front page news. However, on the same day, the Chinese Government decided to teach a lesson to student pro-democracy demonstrators. Up to 2,600 people were thought to be dead, and 10,000 injured, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, firing indiscriminately on the demonstrators. It was unexpected, shocking, and upstaged any other major world events on that incredible day.