1956 — The FBI commences COINTELPRO operations against American citizens

COINTELPRO, or COunter INTELligence PROgram, was one of the FBI’s grossest violations of the civil rights of the people it supposedly protected in the agency’s existence. Authorised by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover on August 28, 1956, and did not end until 1971. It consisted of a variety of counter-intelligence manouvres aimed at what were euphemistically called ‘domestic targets’.

The target list included organisations deemed ‘subversive’ by the FBI, approximately 85% of them leftist groups and individuals (including Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein) associated with the Civil Rights movement. The list of groups reads like a counter-culture who’s who: the SDS, the NAACP, the Congress for Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, the Weathermen, the American Indian Movement and almost every group protesting the Vietnam War. (The remaining 15% of COINTELPRO’s attentions were aimed at the Ku Klux Klan and similar extreme right groups.)

Tactics used by COINTELPRO included discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, even assassination. It only stopped after an illegal break in stole and made public documents exposing the program – not because it was, you know, wrong or illegal or anything like that, but because it made Hoover look bad in the press.

Referenced in:
Your Next Bold Move — Ani Di Franco

1956 – Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes President of Egypt

Gamal Abdel Nasser was a colonel in the Egyptian army who wasn’t satisfied with the status quo of post-colonial Egypt. He had formed highly critical opinions of his political masters, especially King Farouk, as a result of his experiences in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Returning to Egypt, and drawing some inspiration from the contemporary coup d’etat in Syria, he began plotting revolution.

In 1952, the revolution began in earnest. Nasser and his allies eventually triumphed, with Muhammad Naguib becoming the first Egyptian President on June 18, 1953. But tensions between the factions of Nasser and Naguib were not eased by victory or the new responsibilities of government. After an assassination attempt that Nasser was able to blame on Naguib’s faction, which found its power greatly diminished by Nasser’s crackdown on them. Finally, in 1956, Nasser became the President de jure – he had had the de facto power of the title for a year or so by that point.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire — Billy Joel

1956 – The Grinch steals Christmas

In an audacious daylight robbery, an individual known only by the nom du crime of “The Grinch” disguised himself as Santa Claus on this day in 1956, and stole a variety of Christmas-related items – presents, food and decorations – from the sleepy hamlet of Whoville.

However, the alleged Grinch later experienced a change of heart (n.b. witness accounts make it clear that this is no metaphor) and returned all of the stolen goods. The citizens of Whoville declined to press charges.

Referenced in:

Lonely Christmas Eve — Ben Folds

1956 – The United Nations gets involved in the Suez Crisis

It’s hard to remember now, but from about 1950 to 1989, every crisis in world politics was viewed as a potential trigger to World War Three. Every time, it seemed, you’d find the Western allies on one side and the Eastern Bloc on the other. This one was different.

On October 30, 1956, Israel invaded Egypt, with the collusion of France and the United Kingdom. The invasion was in response to Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal four months earlier. The three invaders all had political and economic reasons for invading: Britain wanted to ensure access to the Canal, as did the French. Both nations were also united in wanting to depose Egyptian President Gamel Nasser. For Israel, it was mostly a pre-emptive strike, as Egypt’s military had been gearing up for some time now, mixed with a little territorial expansion.

Reaction around the world was on Egypt’s side for the most part. Using the United Nations, the USA and USSR forged a consensus solution to the crisis, in which Britan and France withdrew without acheiving their goals, but Israel retained its captured territory. For both the European powers, the crisis accelerated decolonisation and led to a chill in their relations with the United States – one that has never really ended for the French. In Egypt, Nasser took credit for the “victory”, which he deluded himself was his doing – a delusion that would last until Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War of 1967.

Referenced in:

We Didn’t Start The Fire — Billy Joel

1956 – Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers release “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”

Frankie Lymon was only 13 when “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” was released. The song reached number 6 on the US charts and number 1 on the UK charts. The song would eventually be ranked #307 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

All of which was good news for Lymon, who co-wrote the song and thus did well from the royalties. Less good was Lymon’s fate – he died of a heroin overdose twelve years later…

Referenced in:

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60’s Rock) — John Cougar Mellencamp

1956 – Béla Lugosi dies

Most famous for his stage and screen portrayals of Dracula, Béla Lugosi was born in Austria-Hungary in the region of Lugoj (in what is now Romania). Born on October 20, 1882, his real name was Béla Ferenc Dezs? Blaskó.

After a successful beginning to his film and stage career in Hungary, he was forced to flee after World War One, and entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1921. He first acted on Broadway in 1922, and made his first American film in 1923. In 1927, he began playing the role of Dracula on Broadway, and later on tour. He played the same role in the 1931 film of Dracula, and became famous the world over for his performance.

But being a foreigner most famous for playing a monster led to typecasting in Hollywood, and this, along with a variety of other factors, including the closure of Universal’s horror films division and also Lugosi’s growing drug habit. He found it harder and harder to get roles, and his appearance as Dracula in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was his last role in a major film.

In the final months of life, he became friends with Ed Wood and appeared in several of his films. He also entered treatment for his addiction, which he completed successfully. However, old age and lifetime of drug abuse caught up with him, and he died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956. He was buried in his Dracula costume, but has yet to rise from the grave lusting for the blood of virgins, alas.

Referenced in:
Béla Lugosi’s Dead — Bauhaus

1956 – “Forbidden Planet” premieres

As adaptations of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” go, “Forbidden Planet” is out there. Out there in space, in fact.

Starring Anne Francis and Leslie Neilson – yes, the guy from The Naked Gun films and all the rest – it tells the story of a mad scientist, his beautiful daughter, the monster that he created and the brave man who saves the daughter from the monster and wins her heart in the process.

Both commercially and critically, it is one of the most successful science fiction films of all time, winning Oscars for its special effects. The most special of these is Robby the Robot, who would go on to appear in numerous other films.

Referenced in:
Science Fiction Double Feature – Rocky Horror Picture Show original cast