1939 Fifty Years Ago

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April 1: With his military victory all but complete, Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain received formal diplomatic recognition of his fascist government from the Roosevelt administration. In also lifting its arms embargo against Spain, the United States became the last Western power to concede that the Spanish Civil War was over. The war had killed almost one million people by the time Franco’s troops marched into Madrid, the final Loyalist stronghold, two days later.

Most observers regarded the Spanish Civil War as a microcosm of the ideological struggle that was dividing all of Europe into armed camps. The fascist governments of Germany and Italy used the war as a training ground for their own troops, supplying up to 40 percent of Franco’s military force. The Soviet Union similarly aided the Spanish Loyalists in opposition to Franco, but the Western democracies contributed only small volunteer groups. Their neutrality effectively guaranteed victory for the side they unofficially opposed. Franco also received on April 1 a telegram from his other notable ally, Pope Pius XII, offering “sincere thanks for Spain’s desired Catholic victory.”

April 20: A twenty-year-old out-fielder named Ted Williams got his first major-league hit for the Boston Red Sox. In his third season Williams would bat .406, an average not since equaled, to establish himself as one of the finest hitters in baseball history. Though he lost almost five full years of his baseball career serving in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, Williams’s accomplishments were still impressive enough to earn him admission to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1966.

April 30: The National Broadcasting Company offered “a new deal in communication” when it began regular television service with a broadcast of President Roosevelt at the opening of the New York World’s Fair. About two hundred television receivers, several of them at the fairground itself but some up to fifty miles away, were tuned in to the telecast. While observers like the Harvard engineer Chester L. Dawes scoffed that Americans would never forsake radio for a medium that “demands continuous attention,” the flawless telecast created a ready market for the television receivers that went on sale in New York stores for the first time the next day.

For most families the few hours a week of programming that were available did not justify paying several hundred dollars for one of the early sets, but Americans did buy ten thousand sets before World War II virtually halted television’s progress. Military strategists quickly devoted its technical innovations and materials to radar, a system that operated on the same principles as television. At war’s end, television stormed forward, fueled by the country’s new prosperity and leisure, as well as by a horde of Navytrained radar operators ready to become TV repairmen.