May 13, 1846: President Polk declares war on Mexico

On May 13, 1846, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly votes in favor of President James K. Polk’s request to declare war on Mexico ina dispute over Texas.

Under the threat of war, theUnited Stateshad refrained from annexing Texas afterthe latterwon independence from Mexico in 1836. But in 1844, President John Tyler restarted negotiations with the Republic of Texas, culminating with a Treaty of Annexation. The treaty was defeated by a wide margin in the Senate because it would upset the slave state/free state balance between North and South and risked war with Mexico, which had broken off relations with the United States. But shortly before leaving office and with the support of President-elect Polk, Tyler managed to get the joint resolution passed on March 1, 1845.Texas was admitted to the union on December 29.While Mexico didn’t follow through with its threat to declare war, relations between the two nations remained tense over border disputes, and in July 1845, President Polk ordered troops into disputed lands that lay between the Neuces and Rio Grande rivers. In November, Polk sent the diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to seek boundary adjustments in return for the U.S. government’s settlement of the claims of U.S. citizens againstMexico and also to make an offer to purchase California and New Mexico. After the mission failed, the U.S. army under Gen. Zachary Taylor advanced to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the river that the state of Texas claimed as its southern boundary.

Mexico, claiming that the boundary was theNueces Riverto the northeast of the Rio Grande, considered the advance of Taylor’s army an act of aggression and in April 1846 sent troops across the Rio Grande. Polk, in turn, declared the Mexican advance to be an invasion of U.S. soil, and on May 11, 1846, asked Congress to declare war onMexico, which it did two days later.

After nearly two years of fighting, peace was established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848. The Rio Grande was made the southern boundary ofTexas, andCalifornia andNew Mexicowere ceded to the United States. In return, the United States paidMexico the sum of $15 million and agreed to settle all claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico.

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May 12, 1957: Race car driver A.J. Foyt gets first pro victory

On this day in 1957, race car driver A.J. Foyt (1935- ) scores his first professional victory, in a U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) midget car race in Kansas City, Missouri.

A tough-as-nails Texan, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. raced midget cars–smaller vehicles designed to be driven in races of shorter distances–and stock cars before moving up to bigger things in 1958, when he entered his first Indianapolis 500 race. Foyt won his first Indy 500 crown in 1961, when rival Eddie Sachs was forced to make a tire change in the final laps, giving Foyt the chance to overtake him and win with a then-record average speed of 139.13 mph.

The 1964 season saw Foyt earn a record-setting winning percentage of .769 with 10 wins in 13 races. His most important win that year came in the Indy 500, which he finished with an average speed of 147.45 mph. After a near-fatal crash in a stock car race in 1965–in which he broke his back, fractured his ankle and suffered severe chest injuries–Foyt came back to continue his string of impressive achievements. In 1967, he won his third Indy 500 in a car he had designed himself, with his father Tony as chief mechanic. Two weeks later, he traveled to France and won the 24 Hours of LeMans international competition with teammate Don Gurney. With a win at the Daytona 500 in 1972, Foyt became the first driver to win all three major races in motor sports: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of LeMans.

In addition to the records for most total victories (67), most national championships (7) and most victories in one season (10), Foyt also has the most consecutive Indy 500 starts: He competed in the race for 35 straight years. His fourth win came in 1977, when the 42-year-old Foyt screamed around the track at an average speed of 161.331 mph. Only two other men have equaled his record of four Indy 500 wins.

In 1989, Foyt became the first driver inducted into the brand-new Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Novi, Michigan. He practiced at the Indy 500 track in 1993, but retired on the first day of qualifying races. Apart from auto racing teams, Foyt’s later business interests have included car dealerships, funeral homes, oil investments and thoroughbred racehorses.

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May 11, 1934: Dust storm sweeps from Great Plains across Eastern states

On this day in 1934, a massive storm sends millions of tons of topsoil flying from across the parched Great Plains region of the United States as far east as New York, Boston and Atlanta.

At the time the Great Plains were settled in the mid-1800s, the land was covered by prairie grass, which held moisture in the earth and kept most of the soil from blowing away even during dry spells. By the early 20th century, however, farmers had plowed under much of the grass to create fields. The U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 caused a great need for wheat, and farms began to push their fields to the limit, plowing under more and more grassland with the newly invented tractor. The plowing continued after the war, when the introduction of even more powerful gasoline tractors sped up the process. During the 1920s, wheat production increased by 300 percent, causing a glut in the market by 1931.

That year, a severe drought spread across the region. As crops died, wind began to carry dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed lands. The number of dust storms reported jumped from 14 in 1932 to 28 in 1933. The following year, the storms decreased in frequency but increased in intensity, culminating in the most severe storm yet in May 1934. Over a period of two days, high-level winds caught and carried some 350 million tons of silt all the way from the northern Great Plains to the eastern seaboard. According to The New York Times, dust “lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers,” and even ships some 300 miles offshore saw dust collect on their decks.

The dust storms forced thousands of families from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico to uproot and migrate to California, where they were derisively known as “Okies”–no matter which state they were from. These transplants found life out West not much easier than what they had left, as work was scarce and pay meager during the worst years of the Great Depression.

Another massive storm on April 15, 1935–known as “Black Sunday”–brought even more attention to the desperate situation in the Great Plains region, which reporter Robert Geiger called the “Dust Bowl.” That year, as part of its New Deal program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began to enforce federal regulation of farming methods, including crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods. This worked to a point, reducing dust storms by up to 65 percent, but only the end of the drought in the fall of 1939 would truly bring relief.

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May 10, 1869: Transcontinental railroad completed

On this day in 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meet in Promontory, Utah, and drive a ceremonial last spike into a rail line that connects their railroads. This made transcontinental railroad travel possible for the first time in U.S. history. No longer would western-bound travelers need to take the long and dangerous journey by wagon train, and the West would surely lose some of its wild charm with the new connection to the civilized East.

Since at least 1832, both Eastern and frontier statesmen realized a need to connect the two coasts. It was not until 1853, though, that Congress appropriated funds to survey several routes for the transcontinental railroad. The actual building of the railroad would have to wait even longer, as North-South tensions prevented Congress from reaching an agreement on where the line would begin.

One year into the Civil War, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), guaranteeing public land grants and loans to the two railroads it chose to build the transcontinental line, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. With these in hand, the railroads began work in 1866 from Omaha and Sacramento, forging a northern route across the country. In their eagerness for land, the two lines built right past each other, and the final meeting place had to be renegotiated.

Harsh winters, staggering summer heat, Indian raids and the lawless, rough-and-tumble conditions of newly settled western towns made conditions for the Union Pacific laborers–mainly Civil War veterans of Irish descent–miserable. The overwhelmingly immigrant Chinese work force of the Central Pacific also had its fair share of problems, including brutal 12-hour work days laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On more than one occasion, whole crews would be lost to avalanches, or mishaps with explosives would leave several dead.

For all the adversity they suffered, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific workers were able to finish the railroad–laying nearly 2,000 miles of track–by 1869, ahead of schedule and under budget. Journeys that had taken months by wagon train or weeks by boat now took only days. Their work had an immediate impact: The years following the construction of the railway were years of rapid growth and expansion for the United States, due in large part to the speed and ease of travel that the railroad provided.

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May 09, 1950: L. Ron Hubbard publishes Dianetics

On this day in 1950, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) publishes Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. With this book, Hubbard introduced a branch of self-help psychology called Dianetics, which quickly caught fire and, over time, morphed into a belief system boasting millions of subscribers: Scientology.

Hubbard was already a prolific and frequently published writer by the time he penned the book that would change his life. Under several pseudonyms in the 1930s, he published a great amount of pulp fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. In late 1949, having returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, Hubbard began publishing articles in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that published works by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson. Out of these grew the elephantine text known as Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

In Dianetics, Hubbard explained that phenomena known as “engrams” (i.e. memories) were the cause of all psychological pain, which in turn harmed mental and physical health. He went on to claim that people could become “clear,” achieving an exquisite state of clarity and mental liberation, by exorcising their engrams to an “auditor,” or a listener acting as therapist.

Though discredited by the medical and scientific establishment, over 100,000 copies of Dianetics were sold in the first two years of publication, and Hubbard soon found himself lecturing across the country. He went on to write six more books in 1951, developing a significant fan base, and establishing the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Despite his fast-growing popularity from books and touring, strife within his organization and Hubbard’s own personal troubles nearly crippled his success. Several of his research foundations had to be abandoned due to financial troubles and he went through a divorce from his second wife.

By 1953, however, Hubbard was able to rebound from the widespread condemnation beginning to be heaped upon him, and introduced Scientology. Scientology expanded on Dianetics by bringing Hubbard’s popular version of psychotherapy into the realm of philosophy, and ultimately, religion. In only a few years, Hubbard found himself at the helm of a movement that captured the popular imagination. As Scientology grew in the 1960s, several national governments became suspicious of Hubbard, accusing him of quackery and brainwashing his followers. Nonetheless, Hubbard built his religion into a multi-million dollar movement that continues to have a considerable presence in the public eye, due in part to its high profile in Hollywood.

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May 08, 1945: V-E Day is celebrated in America and Britain

On this day in 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrate Victory in Europe Day. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi war machine.

The eighth of May spelled the day when German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms: In Prague, Germans surrendered to their Soviet antagonists, after the latter had lost more than 8,000 soldiers, and the Germans considerably more; in Copenhagen and Oslo; at Karlshorst, near Berlin; in northern Latvia; on the Channel Island of Sark–the German surrender was realized in a final cease-fire. More surrender documents were signed in Berlin and in eastern Germany.

The main concern of many German soldiers was to elude the grasp of Soviet forces, to keep from being taken prisoner. About 1 million Germans attempted a mass exodus to the West when the fighting in Czechoslovakia ended, but were stopped by the Russians and taken captive. The Russians took approximately 2 million prisoners in the period just before and after the German surrender.

Meanwhile, more than 13,000 British POWs were released and sent back to Great Britain.

Pockets of German-Soviet confrontation would continue into the next day. On May 9, the Soviets would lose 600 more soldiers in Silesia before the Germans finally surrendered. Consequently, V-E Day was not celebrated until the ninth in Moscow, with a radio broadcast salute from Stalin himself: “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations…has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

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May 07, 1994: The Scream recovered

On May 7, 1994, Norway’s most famous painting, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, was recovered almost three months after it was stolen from a museum in Oslo. Thefragile painting was recovered undamaged at a hotel in Asgardstrand, about 40 miles south of Oslo, police said.

The iconic 1893 painting of a waiflike figure on a bridge was stolen in only 50 seconds during a break-in on February 12, the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Two thieves broke through a window of the National Gallery, cut a wire holding the painting to the wall and left a note reading “Thousand thanks for the bad security!”

A few days after the theft, a Norwegian anti-abortion group said it could have the painting returned if Norwegian television showed an anti-abortion film. The claim turned out to be false. The government also received a $1 million ransom demand on March 3, but refused to pay it due to a lack of proof that the demand was genuine.

Eventually, police found four pieces of the painting’s frame in Nittedal, a suburb north of Oslo, and what may have been a cryptic messages that the thieves wanted to discuss a ransom. Finally, in January 1996, four men were convicted and sentenced in connection with the theft. Theyincluded Paal Enger, who had been convicted in 1988 of stealing Munch’s “The Vampire” in Oslo. Enger was sentenced this time to six-and-a-half-years in prison. He escaped while on a field trip in 1999, andwas captured 12 days later in a blond wig and dark sunglasses trying to buy a train ticket to Copenhagen.

In August 2004, another version of “The Scream” was stolen along with Munch’s “The Madonna,” this time from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Three men were convicted in connection with that theft in May 2006. Police recovered both works in August with minor marks and tears. Yet another version of “The Scream” remained in private hands and sold on May 2, 2012, for $119.9 million, becoming the most expensive work of art to sell at auction.

Munch developed an emotionally charged style that served as an important forerunner of the 20th century Expressionist movement. He painted “The Scream” as part of his “Frieze of Life” series, in which sickness, death, fear, love and melancholy are central themes. He died in January 1944 at the age of 81.

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May 06, 1994: English Channel tunnel opens

In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age.

The channel tunnel, or “Chunnel,” connects Folkstone, England, with Sangatte, France, 31 miles away. The Chunnel cut travel time between England and France to a swift 35 minutes and eventually between London and Paristo two-and-a-half hours.

As the world’s longest undersea tunnel, the Chunnel runs under water for 23 miles, with an average depth of 150 feet below the seabed. Each day, about 30,000 people, 6,000 cars and 3,500 trucks journey through the Chunnel on passenger, shuttle and freight trains.

Millions of tons of earth were moved to build the two rail tunnels–one for northbound and one for southbound traffic–and one service tunnel. Fifteen thousandpeople were employed at the peak of construction. Ten people were killed during construction.

Napoleon’s engineer, Albert Mathieu, planned the first tunnel under the English Channel in 1802, envisioning an underground passage with ventilation chimneys that would stretch above the waves. In 1880, the first real attempt was made by Colonel Beaumont, who bore a tunnel more than a mile long before abandoning the project. Other efforts followed in the 20th century, but none on the scale of the tunnels begun in June 1988.

The Chunnel’s $16 billion cost was roughly twice the original estimate, and completion was a year behind schedule. One year into service, Eurotunnel announced a huge loss, one of the biggest in United Kingdom corporate history at the time. A scheme in which banks agreed to swap billions of pounds worth of loans for shares saved the tunnel from going under and it showed its first net profit in 1999.

Freight traffic was suspended for six months after a fire broke out on a lorry in the tunnel in November 1996. Nobody was seriously hurt in the incident.

In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the tunnel as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

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May 05, 1961: The first American in space

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world’s first artificial satellite–Sputnik 1–in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard’s suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.

NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

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May 04, 1994: Rabin and Arafat sign accord for Palestinian self-rule

On May 4, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat reached agreement in Cairo on the first stage of Palestinian self-rule.

The agreement was made in accordance with the Oslo Accords, signed in Washington, D.C.on September 13, 1993. This was the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and it acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. It was also designed as a framework for future relations between the two parties.

The Gaza-Jericho agreement signed on this day in history addressed four main issues: security arrangements, civil affairs, legal matters and economic relations. It included an Israeli military withdrawal from about 60 percent of the Gaza Strip (Jewish settlements and their environs excluded) and the West Bank town of Jericho, land captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Palestinians agreed to combat terror and prevent violence in the famous “land for peace” bargain. The document also included an agreement to a transfer of authority from the Israeli Civil Administration to the newly created Palestinian Authority, its jurisdiction and legislative powers, a Palestinian police force and relations betweenIsrael and the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from Jericho on May 13 and from most of the Gaza Strip on May 18-19, 1994. Palestinian Authority police and officials immediately took control. During the first few days there was a spate of attacks on Israeli troops and civilians in and near the Strip. Arafat himself arrived in Gaza to a tumultuous, chaotic welcome on July 1.

As time went on,timetables stipulated in the dealwere not met, Israel’s re-deployments were slowed and new agreements were negotiated. Israeli critics of the deal claimed “Land for Peace” was in reality “Land for Nothing.”

The momentum toward peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians was seriously jolted by the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising, known as “Second Intifada.” Further strain was put on the process after Hamas came into power in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

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