This Day In History


Great Emigration Departs for Oregon

May 22, 1843

A massive wagon train, made up of 1,000 settlers and 1,000 head of cattle, sets off down the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri. Known as the “Great Emigration,” the expedition came two years after the first modest party of settlers made the long, overland journey to Oregon.

After leaving Independence, the giant wagon train followed the Sante Fe Trail for some 40 miles and then turned northwest to the Platte River, which it followed along its northern route to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. From there, it traveled on to the Rocky Mountains, which it passed through by way of the broad, level South Pass that led to the basin of the Colorado River. The travelers then went southwest to Fort Bridger, northwest across a divide to Fort Hall on the Snake River, and on to Fort Boise, where they gained supplies for the difficult journey over the Blue Mountains and into Oregon. The Great Emigration finally arrived in October, completing the 2,000-mile journey from Independence in five months.

In the next year, four more wagon trains made the journey, and in 1845 the number of emigrants who used the Oregon Trail exceeded 3,000. Travel along the trail gradually declined with the advent of the railroads, and the route was finally abandoned in the 1870s.

The Pact of Steel Is Signed; the Axis Is Formed

May 22, 1939

On this day in 1939, Italy and Germany agree to a military and political alliance, giving birth formally to the Axis powers, which will ultimately include Japan.

Mussolini coined the nickname “Pact of Steel” (he had also come up with the metaphor of an “axis” binding Rome and Berlin) after reconsidering his first choice, “Pact of Blood,” to describe this historic agreement with Germany. The Duce saw this partnership as not only a defensive alliance, protection from the Western democracies, with whom he anticipated war, but also a source of backing for his Balkan adventures. Both sides were fearful and distrustful of the other, and only sketchily shared their prospective plans. The result was both Italy and Germany, rather than acting in unison, would often “react” to the precipitate military action of the other. In September 1940, the Pact of Steel would become the Tripartite Pact, with Japan making up the third constituent of the triad.

“Winning” Released, Stars Paul Newman as a Race Car Driver

May 22, 1969

On this day in 1969, the legendary actor, philanthropist and automobile enthusiast Paul Newman makes his onscreen racing debut in the action-drama film “Winning.”

By the time he made “Winning,” the blue-eyed Newman was already famous for his performances in such films as “The Hustler” (1960), “Hud” (1962) and “Cool Hand Luke” (1967). The same year “Winning” was released, Newman paired with Robert Redford in the blockbuster hit “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In “Winning,” Newman played Frank Capua, a struggling race car driver who must turn around his fortunes by winning the biggest race of them all—the Indianapolis 500—and in the process avoid losing his wife (played by Newman’s real-life spouse, Joanne Woodward) to his biggest rival, Luther Erding (Robert Wagner). Newman and Wagner attended racing school to prepare for their action scenes, and Newman reportedly performed many of the racing scenes himself, without a stunt driver.

Three years after making the film, Newman launched a racing career of his own, driving a Lotus Elan in his first Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race in 1972. In the mid-1970s, he joined a racing team, and they finished in fifth place in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1977. Newman’s personal best finish was second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979; he drove a Porsche 935. In 1980, Newman talked to Sports Illustrated about his entry into racing after “Winning”: “I found I had enjoyed the precision of it, of controlling those cars… I could see it would be a gas to do something like that really well.”

With the car magnate Carl Haas, Newman co-founded a racing team (now known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing) that would compile a record of more than 100 wins on the Indy racing circuit from 1983 to 2008. Newman also remained an active competitor in endurance racing, making his last start in 2006 in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. In addition to his acting and racing prowess, Newman turned Newman’s Own, a small salad-dressing company he started in 1982, into a retail empire that would eventually generate more than $220 million in charitable donations and expand to include popcorn, pasta sauces, salsas and fruit drinks. He died in September 2008, at the age of 83, after a battle with cancer.

Jimmy Carter Reaffirms His Commitment to Human Rights

May 22, 1977

President Jimmy Carter, in a speech delivered at Notre Dame University, reaffirms his commitment to human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and disparages the “inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” Carter’s speech marked a new direction for U.S. Cold War policy, one that led to both accolades and controversy.

Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, during a time when America was still reeling from the trauma of the Vietnam War and many were questioning the very basis of U.S. foreign diplomacy. Carter promised change, and during an address at Notre Dame University on May 22, 1977, he sketched out his vision for the future of American diplomacy. He began by noting the “great recent successes” in nations such as India, Greece, and Spain in bringing about democratic governments. These successes had renewed America’s confidence in the strength of democracy and would now “free” the United States from the “inordinate fear of communism” that once led America to ally itself with brutal dictators who agreed to help fight the communist menace. What was needed in the “new world” that America faced was “a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.” Carter then outlined the steps he was taking to strengthen this “commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” America’s foreign policy, he concluded, should be “rooted in our moral values, which never change.”

Carter’s commitment to the protection and advancement of human rights as the keystone to his foreign policy brought him applause from many Americans and others around the world that believed that the United States, in battling the Soviet Union, had resorted to reprehensible actions. The Vietnam War had shattered the vision of America as a protector of the weak and defender of freedom, and Carter’s accent on moral values struck a resonant chord with many disillusioned Americans. The policy also resulted in some controversy, however. When long-time dictators Anastacio Somoza of Nicaragua and the Shah of Iran fell from power in 1979, critics of Carter’s human rights policy blamed the president for the demise of two governments, which had been strong allies in the war against communism. Ronald Reagan, in his successful 1980 presidential campaign against Carter, constantly reiterated his theme that his opponent’s policies had severely weakened America in its struggle against the Soviet Union.