Exxon Valdez had only recently departed the Valdez Marine Terminal when the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of steering the vessel while he retired to his quarters. Having moved outside the usual shipping lanes to avoid small icebergs that had been sighted earlier, the ship struck the reef at 12:04am.
Described by John Muir as a ‘bright and spacious wonderland’, Prince William Sound is one of the world’s most remote locations. This made the clean-up operation both challenging and expensive. Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were later criticised for their response to the spill, which initially used chemical dispersants on the oil. They later attempted a mechanical clean-up but, despite their attempts to control the situation, the oil eventually spread over more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of water.
High pressure hot water that was sprayed over the beaches to displace the oil was later found to have destroyed organisms in the environment. These not only formed a vital part of the food chain but could also help to biodegrade the oil.
Millions of fish and hundreds of thousands of seabirds died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, while hundreds of otters and seals – as well as more than a dozen orcas – also perished as a result of the oil spill.
In total, only 10% of the lost oil was completely retrieved. This means that, even decades after the spill, hundreds of miles of Alaskan beaches are still polluted with crude oil lying just below the sandy surface.
At 7:48 on the morning of the 7th December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the United States’ Hawaiian naval base at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen US Navy ships were sunk or damaged by 353 Japanese fighter, bomber and torpedo planes. Nearly 2,500 American servicemen were killed, with another 1,000 injured. The Japanese lost just 64 men.
Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor in order to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from becoming involved in Japan’s advance into Southeast Asia, particularly British-controlled Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the United States was not involved in the Second World War at the time, it had previously provided financial support to the Republic of China in the Sino-Japanese War and stopped selling equipment such as aeroplanes, parts and aviation fuel to Japan in1940. Remaining oil shipments were stopped in July 1941.
Japan’s military commanders became convinced that the USA would eventually intervene as they advanced further into Southeast Asia. On the 26th November, the main Japanese attack fleet left port for Pearl Harbour. However, Emperor Hirohito only gave final approval for the attack on the 1st December. By this point most Americans expected imminent war with Japan, but the attack on Pearl Harbour caught everyone by surprise.
At 7:48am on the 7th December the first wave of Japanese planes began their attack. The entire assault was over within 90 minutes. The following morning, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy” and called for Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan. They did so less than an hour later.
On the 22nd September 1980, the longest conventional war of the 20th Century began when Iraq launched an invasion of Iran. The Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, dubbed it the ‘Whirlwind War’ in which he expected Iran to be defeated relatively swiftly. However the war persisted for nearly 8 long and bloody years, and an estimated half a million soldiers and the same number of civilians were killed.
Having become President of Iraq in 1979, Saddam Hussein was keen to consolidate the power of his minority Sunni Muslim Ba’ath government. However, at almost exactly the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power through the Iranian Revolution, installing a Shi’ite Muslim theocracy in Iraq’s neighbor and calling for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Unsurprisingly, this was met with hostility in Iraq, especially after Shia militants assassinated 20 party officials in April 1980.
Iraq also wanted to push Iran back from the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in order to secure its own oil exports. If the army was successful, they could even increase their oil reserves by capturing some of Iran’s oil fields. Iran was poorly prepared for war as its army had recently been purged of officers and soldiers loyal to the former Shah. Furthermore, the country’s economy was in tatters as a result of western countries boycotting trade due to the ongoing hostage crisis at the American Embassy.
Despite Saddam’s expectations of a quick and easy victory, Iran mobilised its revolutionary population who voluntarily streamed to the front lines and pushed the Iraqis back to their own border. The war raged for an unprecedented eight years.
On the 4th November 1979, the Iran hostage crisis began when a group of Iranian students from a group called the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed the American Embassy in Tehran. The students seized 66 hostages, of whom 52 were held for 444 days before being released shortly after Ronald Reagan concluded his inaugural address as the new President of the USA.
The origins of the crisis lay in the declining relationship between the USA and Iran under the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. The American CIA along with MI6 from Britain had orchestrated a coup to install the Shah as ruler of Iran in order to protect their oil interests in the region. Although this was successful, many Iranians opposed the Shah’s repressive rule and found a leader in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini under whose guidance the Shah was overthrown in July 1979.
Three months later, on the 22nd October, the Shah was granted entry to the US to access treatment for lymphoma. Although President Carter eventually granted entry on humanitarian grounds, the political repercussions were huge. Khomeini stirred up anti-American feeling by referring to the USA as the ‘Great Satan’ and hinting that the CIA was plotting another coup to return the Shah to power.
Shortly after the Shah landed in New York on the 4th November, a student demonstration outside the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran stormed the building. 66 hostages were taken, of which only 14 were released before the end of the crisis. The remaining hostages were not freed until the 21st January 1981.