Bad News

The August Meltdown

This year’s tumultuous August fits right in with the month’s historical meltdowns.

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August 2011

Where do we even begin? The month kicked off with record temperatures throughout the U.S., while Washington eeked out a deal to raise the debt ceiling that left few happy. The drama had not only Americans watching horrified, but also the rest of the world. By the end of the first week in August, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ for the first time in history. The Friday-night downgrade meant that when the worldwide markets opened Monday, it was time to buckle up for a wild week ahead. The U.S. stock market had a “flash crash” Monday and a flash rally Tuesday before slumping Wednesday on fears that now France’s credit would be downgraded. Meanwhile, London descended into chaos for five straight nights as riots erupted in the city. On the evening of August 6, about 200 assembled in Tottenham, North London, to march peacefully to protest the death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, an alleged gangster shot to death by police. But the protest quickly spiraled out of control as rioters began setting fire to buildings, looting and stabbing. The riots spread throughout the city and eventually Manchester, Birmingham and other parts of Britain within four days. During this time, at least 111 police officers were injured and Metropolitan Police had arrested more than 1,100. By the fifth night, Prime Minister David Cameron said water cannons could be used and “nothing is off the table” to dispel the riots. Had enough yet? Only ten days in, there’s still plenty of time for more drama ahead.

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August 2005

We almost survived August 2005 without any disasters—that is, until August 29, when the costliest and one of the deadliest natural disasters in history came ashore. The category 3 hurricane hit land at Buras, Louisiana in the early morning of August 29, causing some 53 levees to breech in neighboring New Orleans and flood 80 percent of the city. But the nightmare was only just beginning. Whole communities were swallowed by the water as the storm destroyed 90,000 square miles of infrastructure. People trapped in their homes were sent to their roofs by the rising floodwaters as they waited to be rescued. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had opened up the Superdome for those fleeing the storm, and as many as 26,000 sought shelter in the stadium built to hold only 800. The scene turned to anarchy inside the crowded stadium as they waited and waited for help to arrive. The city descended into chaos as the days mounted and no help came. In the end, 1,800 died from the disaster, left the city in ruins and scarred the country.

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August 2003

Only days after a record-breaking heat wave, the northeastern U.S. and Canada was in for a shock on August 14, 2003: Nearly 50 million people from Ontario south to Ohio and all the northeastern U.S. lost power in the largest blackout in history. What happened? A high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down—normally not a problem, but the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation failed. Over the next 90 minutes, three other lines also hit the trees and switched off, overburdening the remaining power lines that then cut out at 4:05 p.m. By 4:13 p.m., 85 percent of the eastern grid went offline completely. By the time power was restored on August 16, eleven people had died as a result of the blackout and cost an estimated $6 billion.

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August 1998

In August 1998, all eyes were on President Clinton, who had famously claimed in January of that year he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” But the story exploded on August 17, when Clinton testified in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Rumors had been swirling for months about what happened with Clinton and Lewinsky, the former intern. Clinton put those rumors to rest in a primetime address that same night where he admitted he had a “relationship that was not appropriate” with Lewinsky. About two-thirds of people watched Clinton’s speech, but his approval rating dropped 20 percent almost immediately. Although Clinton pleaded with the American people to “turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months,” the scandal went on for months afterward until February 1998 when Clinton was acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Rebecca Naden / AP Photo

August 1997

Just one year after Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce made headlines, she would dominate the airwaves again. In the very early hours of August 31, a car carrying Princess Diana, her boyfriend, Dodi al-Fayed, and Fayed’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, driven by Henri Paul, crashed in a Paris tunnel. Paul and Fayed were pronounced dead immediately, while Diana was taken to the hospital via ambulance after already suffering a cardiac arrest at the scene. At 4 a.m. Paris time, Diana was pronounced dead at Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital. The following days almost brought down the British monarchy, as the grieving Brits awaited some response from the Royal Family, who stayed holed up in their vacation home of Balmoral Castle until finally issuing a public statement on September 4.

Rusty Kennedy / AP Photo

August 1993

On August 23, 1993, police in Los Angeles announced they had been investigating Michael Jackson for child abuse. While police refused to give details, the news leaked out that police had searched two of Jackson’s homes the weekend following allegations that the singer had molested a 13-year-old boy—and that police had interviewed other children who spent time at Neverland Ranch, including child actor Macaulay Culkin. Jackson, on tour in Thailand, denied the charges. Although Jackson settled the case in early 1994 and paid the boy in question, Jordie Chandler, a reported $20 million, the can of worms had been opened. Jackson was never quite able to escape the rumors, and was again charged with molesting a young boy in 2003 before being found not guilty in 2005.

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August 1990

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, starting the first Gulf War. Within hours of the invasion, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Iraq and demanding a withdrawal of their troops. By August 8, Iraq had won a decisive military victory over Kuwait, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein installed a puppet regime while the diplomatic community struggled to keep up. On August 6, the UN passed economic sanctions on Iraq and within six days, Hussein called for compromise—but he called for Israel to withdraw from Palestine, something President George H.W. Bush strongly opposed. While Iraq continually called for negotiations, the U.S. took a hard line and insisted no talks would be possible until Iraq unconditionally complied with the UN resolution to withdraw completely from Kuwait. On August 7, the U.S. shipped the first combat troops to Saudi Arabia to prepare for a conflict. On August 23, Hussein appeared on state television with a group of western hostages, part of hundreds of foreigners detained in the conflict. Providing an iconic image of the war, Hussein spoke directly to a young boy identified only as Stuart, ruffling his hair and asking the boy if he was getting enough milk. The war lasted far beyond August, as the UN authorized any necessary force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in November 1990 and Operation Desert Storm starting on January 17, 1991. The five-week war ended on March 3, 1991.

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August 1977

While a number of connected murders from July 1976 until March 1977 in New York City, the so-called “Son of Sam” terrorizing didn’t begin until the summer of 1977. The killer sent a letter to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin in March 1977, asking “what will you for July twenty-ninth?”—the anniversary of the first murder. On June 26, two were shot by the killer, heightening the tension throughout New York, where residents were already staying inside. On July 31, 1977, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violente were shot. Moskowitz died, but Violente survived—and the shooting provided more witnesses than any of the previous incidents. One witness, Cacilia Davis, was close enough to the killer that she could give a description, saying later “I would never forget his face until the day I die.” In the first few days of August, while the city waited terrified, police investigated traffic tickets issued the night of the shooting. On August 8, they tracked one ticket to a Yonkers resident named David Berkowitz. The Yonkers Police Department confirmed that they had some suspicions about Berkowitz in connection with the killings, and police found a .44-caliber rifle in the backseat of Berkowtiz’s car when they arrived on August 9 to question him. On August 10, Berkowitz emerged from his apartment and reportedly said “you got me. What took you so long?” upon his arrest. He confessed to the murders on August 11.

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August 1974

Although the five Watergate burglars were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, it took a while for all the elements of the scandal to unfold. After two years, the House of Representatives had passed three article of impeachment against President Nixon and three senior Republican congressmen privately told Nixon his chances of avoiding impeachment and removal from office by the Senate were “gloomy.” On August 5, Nixon released transcripts of conversations he had with his former aide Robert Haldeman six days after the break-in that showed Nixon knew of the involvement of White House officials and the Campaign to Re-Elect the President—and that Nixon ordered the FBI to stop investigating the break-in. After hearing this evidence, eleven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who had voted against impeachment said they would change their votes. On August 8, Nixon gave a televised primetime speech where he announced that he would be resigning, effective at noon on August 9. As promised, Nixon left office, giving a short farewell address to his staff where he admitted “mistakes,” but insisted he was “proud of his Cabinet.” While many Americans spent much of August wondering what would come next, newly appointed President Gerald Ford announced on Sept. 8 that he was granting Nixon a full pardon, saying that the “American tragedy” had to end.

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August 1968

In the early months of 1968, there was a glimmer of hope that the Soviet Union would end its grip on the countries of the Iron Curtain, especially as Prague erupted into pro-democracy protests and reformist leader Alexander Dubček rose to power. Although the Soviet Union had brutally crushed Hungary’s attempt at democracy in 1956, the Warsaw Pact countries remained silent throughout the protests and Dubček’s introduction of free speech and freedom of assembly. On August 3, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration, which called for the removal of the Soviet troops. But the Soviet Union decided otherwise before the month was over: During the night of August 20, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, killing more than 100 and imprisoning Dubček and other leaders of the movement. The Prague Spring was over.

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August 1965

While study of the U.S. civil rights movement is usually limited to the South, one of the biggest riots in U.S. history took place in Watts, a neighborhood in south central Los Angeles. On August 11, 1965, LAPD officer Lee Minikus pulled over motorist Marquette Frye, who the police suspected was driving drunk. Police attempted to arrest Frye and his brother Ronald, but when their mother, Rena Frye arrived on the scene, a struggle broke out as police attempted to arrest all three members of the Frye family. As the struggle continued, more officers arrived on the scene and a crowd of onlookers gathered. Up to 5,000 gathered in a 20-block area that night, and The New York Times reported “in one instance, a Molotov cocktail was tossed at a car driven by a white man, who was then dragged out of his car and beaten. ‘This is no place for a white man,’ a Negro youth was heard to warn him … Most of the damage has been done to Negro stores and automobiles. ‘It’s a race riot and it isn’t,’ one weary young officer commented after the foray.” The riots lasted for six days, leaving 34 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and more than 600 buildings destroyed.

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August 1964

Although the U.S. had been involved in covert actions in Vietnam since the early 1960s, the cause for war was not justified until August 2, 1964 when a set of murky events in the Gulf of Tonkin would set the stage for a full-on military conflict. On the afternoon August 2, the destroyer the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese forces. After the action ended, the Maddox was reinforced by another steamer and took back off in the Gulf, under orders by President Johnson to test the North Vietnamese resolve. On the night of August 4, the warships reported making contact with the North Vietnamese—although there was no wreckage ever found. Although ship’s captain almost immediately acknowledged that the second attack may not have happened, defense secretary Robert McNamara never notified Johnson of the cables, and Johnson had already decided on retaliatory action. On August 4, he asked Congress for the power to broaden war powers in what is now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Within 28 hours, Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on the bases of North Vietnamese torpedo boats and made a televised announcement that U.S. naval forces had been attacked. But by as early as 1965, Johnson had doubts about moving so quickly—reportedly saying “for all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales.”

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August 1961

As the Cold War enveloped Europe in the 1950s, Berlin—separated into the democratic West Berlin and Communist East Berlin—was the symbolic heart of the battle. As East Berliners tried to escape into the West through the easily-crossed borders, East Germany erected a barbed wire fence in 1952 to close off the borders. But by August 1961, more than three million people left East Berlin for the West, and the East German government was ready for more drastic measures. Despite an earlier promise by Communist East German leader Walter Ulbricht that “nobody intends to build a wall,” on midnight of August 13, East German troops began building what Ulbricht called an “anti-fascist protection barrier.” The situation got even more tense two days later when East German soldier Conrad Schumann was photographed leaping over the barbed wire section into the West—one of the most iconic images of the East-West divide in Berlin. On August 19, a man fell to his death trying to climb over the wall and a few days later, the first person was killed by border guards trying to escape. Wherever any Berlin resident was on the night of August 12, they were stuck there for decades: The Wall was completed.

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August 1945

Two months after the end of the war in Europe, the war in the Pacific still dragged on. On August 6, 1945, President Truman—fearful of a ground invasion of Japan—authorized the first-ever use of an atomic weapon on the city of Hiroshima. The device was said to be 2,000 times more powerful than the largest bomb used to date. The bomb, known as “Little Boy,” contained the equivalent of 12 and 15,000 tons of TNT and devastated an area of five square miles, destroying more than 60 percent of the buildings in the area. The Japanese later estimated 118,000 people died as a result, but some figures have placed the dead as high as 140,000 out of a pre-bomb population of 350,000 in Hiroshima. “From the mound, Mr. Tanimoto saw an astonishing panorama,” wrote John Hershey in Hiroshima.  “Not just a patch of koi, as he had expected, but as much of Hiroshima as he could see through the clouded air was giving off a thick, dreadful miasma.” But the assault was not over: Three days later, the U.S. dropped another, larger atomic bomb on Nagasaki, weighing nearly 9,000 pounds—killing 74,000. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union made a unilateral declaration of war on August 8. The events were too much for Japan, with Japan surrendering to the Allies on August 14.

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August 1939

As Adolf Hitler made the preparations to go to war and wanted to conquer Poland militarily, he was wary to start a two-front war, which he believed had crippled Germany in the first World War. To avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop contacted the Soviets to make a deal. Soviet leader Josef Stalin sent a letter back calling for the creation of a German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed the first part of the pact on August 19, 1939, which committed the Soviet Union to provide food products and raw materials to Germany in exchange for products such as machinery. On August 23, they signed the second part of the pact, which would publicly stated the two countries would not attack each other for the next 10 years—and if France or  Britain declared war on Germany, the Soviet Union would remain friendly with Germany. But privately, the two countries agreed to divide Poland between them and Germany agreed to provide the Soviets with the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The effects of this pact were enormous: A little more than a week later, Germany invaded Poland—and the Soviet Union watched the invasion and then invaded the eastern portion of Poland—and Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, starting World War II.

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August 1914

On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Although the gunman was later believed to have acted alone, at the time he confessed to being part of a Serbian national group. As the July wore on, the alliances between the major empires of Europe became more and more apparent, as did the run-up to war. On July 31, Russia mobilized their army in support of Serbia, lining troops on the German and Austrian borders. On August 1, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. While Italy declared on August 2 that it would remain neutral, the rest of Europe did not follow. On August 3, Germany declared war on France, and Britain declared it would go to war against Germany if Belgium was invaded. On August 4, Germany marched through Belgium to get to France, and Britain declared war on Germany. On August 5, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and on August 10, France declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Britain on August 12. The collaborations were complete. On August 14, France invaded the German territory of Lorraine—and the “war to end all wars” officially had begun.

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August 1814

To try to end the War of 1812, the British planned a three-part invasion of the U.S.: Chesapeake Bay, Lake Champlain and the mouth of the Mississippi River. On the way, to the Mississippi, British troops tore through Washington, D.C. on August 24-25, burning the city—including the White House. As the neighborhoods were burned across the city, the Union Flag was raised. But less than a day after the attack began, a tornado ripped through the city and killed British and American troops—and forced the British to withdraw. The British occupation of the city lasted 26 hours total.

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August 30 BC

August 30 BC saw a dramatic end to one of the biggest civil wars in Roman history. Julius Caeser’s nephew Octavian battled for control of the Roman Empire in the years following Caeser’s death, and he managed to march into Alexandria in 30 BC. In the aftermath of the battle, Cleopatra hid in a secret mausoleum, unbeknown to Mark Antony, who was informed his lover was dead. Because of this, Antony stabbed himself with his own sword, and was brought to mausoleum where Cleopatra was hiding. Antony died begging Cleopatra to make peace with Octavian, but rather than live under his dominion, Cleopatra killed herself on August 30, possibly by use of an asp, a poisonous Egyptian snake and symbol of divine royalty.  Her death ended the last obstacle for Octavian, who then executed Cleopatra’s son Caesarion and annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire—using Cleopatra’s fortune to pay off the soldiers.