This Week in History

PHOTO: American and British transportation planes supply food to Berlin's Western sector isolated by the Soviet's blockade.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images)

From the birth of a movement to the birth of a museum, this week had its fair share of beginnings but also its fair share of endings, with a Supreme Court decision that amended a centuries-old death penalty policy. Here's what happened this week in history:

PHOTO: American and British transportation planes supply food to Berlin's Western sector isolated by the Soviet's blockade.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images)
June 24

1948: The Soviets Blockade West Berlin

On June 24, 1948, two days after negotiations about Germany's economic future broke down between the western powers and the USSR, the Soviets blockaded all roads leading in and out of West Berlin.

The Soviets, who occupied the eastern part of the city, disagreed with its former World War II allies -- the U.S., Great Britain and France, who believed that Western Europe could only recover with the aid of a stable, reunified Germany.

The Russians wanted monetary and physical reparations from the Germans following the devastation of the war. The Americans had halted reparation shipments from their Berlin zone to East Berlin two years earlier, in 1946.

In response to this and the end of negotiations on Germany's economic expectations, the Soviets blockaded all road and railway lines of the city.

The Americans responded just two days later with a successful airlift of supplies to West Berliners, demonstrating their technological superiority over the USSR and highlighting the failure of the blockade.

PHOTO: South Korean troops rounding up alleged communist sympathisers, following the American invasion and capture of the port of Incheon, Korea, during the 1950 Korean War.
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
June 25

1950: The Korean War Begins The first military move of the Cold War occurred 63 years ago today. On June 25, 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the northern Democratic People's Republic of Korea invaded their southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea.

The invasion came five years after Korea was divided by two young State Department aides along the 38th parallel, into a Soviet-backed North Korea and an American-backed South Korea.

American forces entered the war as South Korea's ally the following month, in July. President Truman and other U.S. government officials believed Korea would be America's first test against international communism.

"If we let Korea down," President Truman said, "the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another."

The war ended with a peace agreement three years later, on July 27, 1953. South Korea gained 1,500 square miles with the new boundaries, as well as a demilitarized zone stretching two miles between the warring nations.

Five million people died in the conflict -- half of whom were Korean civilians.

PHOTO: Then US President John F Kennedy gives a speech at the Schoeneberg city hall in Berlin, where he said his famous German sentence "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) to underline the support of the United States for West Germany and his empathy
DPA/AFP/Getty Images
June 26

1963: JFK Gives 'I Am a Berliner' Speech

Fifty years ago this Wednesday, President John F. Kennedy spoke the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner" -- "I am a Berliner."

Kennedy visited Berlin as his last stop in Germany during a five-country tour of Western Europe to boost morale among America's democratic allies.

This morale boost was particularly necessary in Berlin, where a wall had been erected two years earlier to separate the Soviet-controlled East Berlin from U.S.-controlled West Berlin.

"Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us," Kennedy told a crowd of 120,000.

The president famously concluded the speech, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'" Watch a clip of the speech in the ABC Archives here.

Both the speech and America's first nuclear test ban treaty with the U.S.S.R. -- which came two months later -- gave hope to Berliners and democratic allies worldwide that the young American leader might bring an end to the Cold War.

Instead, less than five months after delivering his speech, President Kennedy was shot and assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

PHOTO: The Smithsonian Institution building is shown in Washington D.C.
Getty Images
June 27

1829: The Birth of the Smithsonian Institution

On June 27, 1829, the English scientist James Smithson died and left his fortune of $508,318 to his nephew Henry James Hungerford -- with a contingency.

Smithson requested that, if his nephew died without an heir, his entire fortune should be given to "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

The request seemed odd considering Smithson was not from the U.S. and had never visited the country.

Despite that, one year after Hungerford died without an heir in 1835, the U.S. Congress approved the acceptance of Smithson's gift.

It decided that the funds would go towards creating a library, a museum and a research program for publication and collection for arts, sciences and history.

The Smithsonian Institute now houses 19 museums and the tomb of its mysterious benefactor, James Smithson.

PHOTO: Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, New York City.
Diana Davies/NYPL
June 28

1969: Stonewall Inn Riots Begin

At approximately 1 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, eight New York City police officers arrived at the Stonewall Inn to raid the bar and its gay customers.

Although gay bar raids were common at this time in New York, this raid became uncommon when the patrons refused to cooperate with police.

A small crowd began to form outside the bar and eventually barricaded the police into the Stonewall Inn. They were only able to escape when the Tactical Police Force of NYPD arrived to free them and arrest anyone they could.

The Stonewall Inn riots lasted three nights, with more than a thousand LGBTQ members and supporters participating in the activity around this Christopher Street bar. They are largely considered to be the spark of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.

One year later, in 1970, the cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco celebrated the anniversary of the Stonewall riots with the nation's first gay pride parades.

PHOTO: John Major Young leans on the door of his death row cell in prison to talk about the Supreme Court decision outlawing the death penalty as it's imposed, June 30, 1972.
Denver Post/Getty Images
June 29

1972: Supreme Court Amends Death Penalty

On this day in 1972, the Supreme Court handed down a decision against the state of Georgia's death penalty in a controversial 5-4 split.

The case came involved William Henry Furman, who had broken into the Savannah, Ga., home of William Joseph Micke Jr. the night of Aug. 11, 1967.

When Micke discovered Furman in his kitchen, Furman escaped from the house, firing a bullet as he did. The shot killed Micke instantly.

A year later, Furman's trial came before a jury, which decided in less than a day that Furman was guilty of murder and should be sentenced to death, despite evidence of his mental illness and the accidental nature of the death.

Furman's legal team appealed to the Supreme Court, where a majority of five justices overturned Furman's conviction. They decided that Georgia's death penalty violated the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause of the Eighth Amendment.

The court issued nine separate opinions on the case. Arguing for the majority, Justice William Douglas wrote, "[W]e deal with a system of law and of justice that leaves to the uncontrolled discretion of judges or juries the determination whether defendants committing these crimes should die or be imprisoned. ... People live or die, dependent on the whim of one man or of 12."

Douglas reviewed multiple studies on the application of the death penalty and found that it was unevenly received by African Americans and defendants who were poor, unhealthy or uneducated.

While Furman v. Georgia forced many states to revise their death penalties, the case of Gregg v. Georgia upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty four years later.

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