World Events

October 4, 1957 – Soviets Launch Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1

 

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union upped the ante in the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite.  Blasted through the atmosphere from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a two-stage R-7 rocket, Sputnik 1 was a 23-inch diameter, 184 pound, aluminum-magnesium-titanium sheathed sphere with two whip-like antennae.  Powered by silver-zinc batteries, it entered a low, elliptical orbit emitting a radio signal which could be received on Earth by both Soviet scientists and the curious (and highly-alarmed) American public.  Sputnik traveled 18,000 miles per hour, completing an Earth-orbit every 96 minutes.  Radio transmissions continued for 22 days, until transmitter batteries were exhausted.  The history-making satellite spent 3 months in orbit, traveling a total of 37 million miles, before burning up in atmospheric reentry on January 4, 1958.

While not able to conduct as many experiments as the Soviets had initially hoped, Sputnik was able to gather information during its three-month run concerning the density of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and meteoroid detection by penetration of the satellite’s outer hull.

The successful launch of an artificial satellite was one of the primary goals of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), inaugurated on July 1, 1957.  The Soviets had first proposed developing such a satellite on May 27, 1954, and President Dwight Eisenhower announced on July 29, 1955 that the United States would send their own version of the technological achievement into space during the IGY.  But Sputnik took America and its government by surprise.  Americans now had to take Soviet scientific abilities much more seriously.  A sense of vulnerability to attack led to panic reactions by the public, as they listened in to Sputnik’s ominous “beep-beep” when it passed directly overhead.  The US government responded with renewed commitment to scientific and technological research, and military and educational program revamping and investment.  ICBMs, missile defense systems, and satellites were all placed on a developmental fast-track.  After several failed attempts, the United States’ first successful launch of its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, occurred on January 31, 1958.

Numerous references to Sputnik in movies, television shows, and pop songs have made the term part of the American cultural landscape.  Replicas and models of the satellite can be found at the United Nations, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London.

Image Credit: NASA

September 30, 1957 – Havana Gunfire Threatens Batista Loyalist

Members of Batista’s Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM) security forces

On September 30, 1957, violence struck close to home for Cuba’s embattled President Fulgencio Batista as the New York Times reported that Luis Manuel Martinez, a leader in President Fulgencio Batista’s Progressive party youth movement, was the target of a shooting incident in downtown Havana.  Unidentified assailants opened fire on a crowded street, killing a merchant named Sixto Careiro and wounding Martinez and two unnamed victims – a woman and a youth.  The youth was arrested when a revolver was found in his possession.

Martinez worked as an assistant editor of the newspaper Tiempo, owned by Batista supporter Senator Rolando Masferrer.  According to the Times, he was one of the most active propagandists of the current regime.

Batista, in an NBC interview with Martin Agronsky broadcast on the day of the shooting, reaffirmed for the American viewing audience that he would honor the provisions of Cuba’s constitution by stepping down the following summer, when free elections would be held.

Image Credit: Jim Hale/Arlequin’s World

September 29, 1957 – The Kyshtym Disaster

Map of the Mayak and Kyshtym area, USSR

On September 29, 1957, an explosion in a steel storage tank containing liquid nuclear waste led to the release of a massive 2 MCi of radioactive material in the eastern Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union.  Spent nuclear waste generates heat, and when tank cooling systems failed, containment of the material failed and a non-nuclear explosion occurred on the order of 70-100 tons of TNT.  The Kyshtym Disaster, as it came to be called, was the third worst nuclear disaster in history, dwarfed only by the Chernobyl reactor explosions and fire in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi multiple reactor meltdowns in 2011.

The incident occurred at Mayak, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant sequestered in the closed city of Ozyorsk, near the town of Kyshtym.  Within ten hours of the release, the radioactive cloud traveled 300-350 kilometers in a northeast direction.  Fallout contaminated an area of approximately 800 square kilometers later called the East-Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT).  Secrecy surrounding Mayak and its operations led to the suppression of information about the danger to the local population; it was a full week before people began to be evacuated, without explanation.  According to an article in Critical Mass Journal by Richard Pollock, people “grew hysterical with fear with the incidence of unknown ‘mysterious’ diseases breaking out.  Victims were seen with skin ‘sloughing off’ their faces, hands, and other exposed parts of their bodies.”

Knowledge about the event could only be gathered indirectly.  An estimated 200 people died from cancer as a direct result of the explosion and release; massive amounts of contaminated soil apparently were excavated and stockpiled; and an off-limits “nature reserve” was created in the EURT to isolate the affected region.  Studies of the effects of radioactivity on plants, animals, and ecosystems later conducted and published by faculty members of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow eventually confirmed the rumors of a major radioactive release.

At the time, the Soviets were hurrying to catch up with American nuclear weapons researchers.  In their desire to produce sufficient quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, they proceeded without full understanding of the safety measures necessary to protect citizens and the environment.  Their lack of concern led to open dumping of highly radioactive waste into rivers and lakes.  The level of radioactivity in the town of Ozyorsk is currently claimed to be within safe limits, but the “East-Ural Nature Reserve”, as the EURT was deceptively renamed in 1968, is still heavily contaminated.

Image Credit: Jan Rieke/NASA World Wind Screenshot

September 14, 1957 – Cuban President Fulgencio Batista Faces Internal Opposition

Batista’s army executes a rebel.

On September 14, 1957, the New York Times reported that Cuban President Fulgencio Batista had recently suppressed a revolt in the town of Cienfuegos in which officers and personnel of his own Navy had taken sides with Fidel Castro against his regime.  The previous day, Batista had announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection the following June (he was constitutionally forbidden to succeed himself) but that the suspension of civil liberties would be renewed for another 45 days.

The Cienfuegos revolt, crushed by Army tanks and aircraft, had been instigated by no more than 100 men, Batista claimed, including “a few dissident, illicit men in the Navy”.  According to the Times article there were three sources of opposition to Batista: Fidel Castro’s M-26-7 movement; adherents of former President Carlos Prio Socarras, who was deposed by Batista in 1952; and a group of Opposition parties.

On this day, the Times reported that the island “was an armed camp”.  Citizens were fearful of a breakdown of authority resulting in a state of chaos; merchants were losing business, tourism was down, businesses wanted to close but were not being permitted to do so by the government.  Soldiers patrolled the streets, rounding up opposition figures, and the jails were full of people accused of revolutionary activities.  Citizens had little faith in Batista’s government, but also little confidence that change could be achieved through peaceful means at the ballot box.  The Times concluded that “despite the bloody revolt, the terrorism and other efforts of the Opposition to force President Batista out of office, he will undoubtedly continue to control the island as long as his Army, the most powerful branch of the armed forces, remains loyal to him.”

Image Credit: Imagno – Museo de la Revolucion, La Habana, Cuba

Vintage 1957 – A Comedy Revolution

 

In the 1950s, stand-up comedy went through something of a revolution. In broad outline, comedy of the 1930s most often took the form of physical slapstick in the movies – think the Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, etc. In the 1940s, the rising popularity of radio broadcasts ushered in less physical and more verbal comedy. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Henny Youngman all perfected the art of one-liners, story gags, and “groaners” (“I just flew in from St. Louis . . . and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my wife . . . please!”).

Comedy in the 1950s turned topical. Journalist and author Gerald Nachman, who covered entertainment news for the New York Post, the Oakland Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, shines a light on the shift in his 2009 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Nachman provides detailed biographies of 26 comedians, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Steve Allen. Politics, sex, race relations, drugs, self-angst, pop media and celebrity, all were suddenly fair game for public airing, often in satirical or cynical ways.

How does comedy work? What makes us laugh?

Laughter can be cathartic. It can lighten our spirits in difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II of the 1930s and 1940s were dark times. People looked to comedy for relief from anxiety and despair.

But laughter also serves as a leveler. It can burst bubbles and open eyes, providing a wake-up call for others or for ourselves. It can be a subtle instrument or sharp weapon against complacency, pretension, self-absorption, mindless conformity, and attitudes of superiority and arrogance. It can slip in “under the radar” to powerfully say, “Take a look at yourself and your culture.”

The comedians of the 1950s – subtle or blunt – had new, sometimes uncomfortable things to say. And they were heard.

Image Credits: ABC Films; NBC Television; New York World-Telegram & Sun; Towpilot; Rollins & Joffe; Allan Warren; AP; Concord Jazz

September 1, 1957 – Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia Born in Havana, Cuba

Embed from Getty ImagesGloria Estefan, with her husband Emilio, at the 2014 Tony Awards

On September 1, 1957, a baby girl entered the politically charged world of Havana, Cuba.  Her father, Jose Fajardo, was a Cuban soldier and bodyguard to embattled President Fulgencio Batista.  Her mother, also named Gloria, was the granddaughter of emigres from Asturias and Logrono, Spain.  Baby Gloria was still very young when her family was forced to flee Cuba during Castro’s revolution, landing first in Lafayette, Indiana, then settling in Miami, Florida.   Jose joined the United States military, served in Viet Nam, and eventually revisited Cuba as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Gloria attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Miami, and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in psychology, minoring in French.  During her college years, Gloria worked at the Miami International Airport in the customs department as an English/Spanish/French translator.  She was approached by the CIA during this time as a possible employee, due to her language skills.

In 1976, Gloria met Emilio Estefan of the Miami Sound Machine and they married in 1978.  Gloria joined Emilio’s band and during the mid-1980s the Sound Machine produced several Top-10 hits and released an album that went multi-platinum.  In 1988, the band’s name was changed to Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine; in 1989, the band’s name was dropped and Gloria was credited as a solo artist with the Sound Machine as her backup.

In 1990, Gloria suffered a fractured spine when a semi-truck struck her tour bus.  Two titanium rods were implanted near her spinal column and she recovered completely after a year of intensive physical therapy.  She later formed the Gloria Estefan Foundation to help others with spinal cord injuries.

Over the years, Gloria Estefan has continued to record chart-topping hits, performed at the 1995 and 1999  Super Bowls and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, toured the United States and the world, appeared in movies and on television, written children’s books, and become a restaurant and hotel owner.  Her awards include seven Grammys, the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor, the Hispanic Heritage Award, the 1993 National Music Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A musical based on Gloria and Emilio’s life story premiered on Broadway at New York City’s Marquis Theatre in October of 2015. On Your Feet! shares the story “of two people who – through an unwavering dedication to one another and their pursuit of the American dream – showcased their talent, their music, and their heritage to the world.”

August 22, 1957 – Two Americans Tried in Cuban Court

Who was Russell Masker?

On August 22, 1957, two American men were put on trial in Cuba for carrying unlicensed arms, resisting arrest, and attempting to join the resistance movement of Fidel Castro.  The proceedings were held in the Urgency Court in Santiago, created in the 1930s to try terrorists.  Russell F. Masker and Thomas M. Miller of Miami, Florida had been arrested on August 9th in the town of San Luis, about thirty miles from Santiago in Cuba’s southeastern Oriente Province, the locus of Castro’s M-26-7 activities.  Masker and Miller denied the charges, asserting they had come to Cuba as tourists, had carried no weapons and had not resisted arrest.  The New York Times reported that the Urgency Court could sentence the Americans to as much as five years in prison, with no guaranteed right of appeal.

Little is known about Russell Masker and Thomas Miller, either before or after their arrest and trial.  Russell Masker makes an intriguing appearance in a Cuban Secret Service (G-2 MINFAR) document dated January 12, 1961.  In a report to the secret service department chief, Commander Ramiro Valdes Menedez, about “yanki” (United States) mercenary camps in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Florida, the following statement appears on page 25:

“Last November 22, the ‘Diario de las Americas’ reported the death of North American Russell F. Masker, victim of a stray shot from Cuban Rolando Martinez Capaneria during military instruction in a camp located in ‘Cayo Sin Nombre’, thirty miles from Cayo Hueso [Key West].”

The American-led Bay of Pigs Invasion against the Castro regime took place in April of 1961.  Whose side was Masker on?