History Book: London smog and a rowing record

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, December 2nd. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re glad you are! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Today, the first person to cross the Atlantic in a row boat. Plus, a famous speech from Fidel Castro, in which he claims he’s not a communist.

EICHER: But first, 67 years ago, an air-pollution disaster in England. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today on December 5th, 1952:

NEWSREEL: A great fog of London has been the chief topic in the south of Britain. Traffic in London was at a stand-still on many occasions… 

The fog begins as an inconvenience but soon turns deadly. The Great Smog hovers over the city for five days. It not only shuts the city down, but sickens residents. It smells like rotting eggs. More than 150,000 people are hospitalized. And as many as 12,000 die. Government officials link the illnesses and deaths to London’s old coal burning plants, home heating systems, and bus emissions—but they struggle to determine why. 

The disaster leads to the Clean Air Act of 1956. It institutes “smoke free zones”—hoping to improve the air quality in and around London enough to avoid any recurrences of the deadly smog.  

Three years ago an international team of researchers from the UK, U.S., and China recreated the fog in a laboratory. Based on analysis of China’s modern smog problem, and what they know of 1952 London conditions, they believe that the deadly smog was the result of sulfur dioxide converting to sulfates, plus suspended sulfuric acid particles.

The surprising factor that made The Great Smog of 1952 so deadly, wasn’t the pollution alone, but the unseasonably cold weather system that trapped the air in place and prevented it from blowing out to sea.

Next, in the Spring of 1959, revolutionary Fidel Castro visits the United States just four months after he successfully overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro tries to calm U.S. fears over intentions.

CASTRO: I know the worry that first of all we are communists. And of course, I have to say very clear that we are not communists… 

Yet a year and a half later, things are very different. The U.S. backed, failed counter-revolution known as “The Bay of Pigs” further strengthened ties between Castro and the Soviet Union. And on December 2nd, 1961, the Cuban leader announces a new direction for the island country.

He enters a studio a little after three in the morning. The 37,000 word speech lays out the history of his revolt, internal and external conflicts, and the struggle against global imperialism. Castro assures the people that he is not a dictator. 

About half-way through the long speech, he declares that he’s a Marxist—adding that Cuba will now embrace Communism. Most of the rest of his speech is an apologetic for socialism. He ends it demanding that the “…Party must always be above individuals because the Party is going to embody…not the value of one spirit of sacrifice, but the value of the spirit of sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of citizens, of the fighting spirit, of love for the Revolution.” 

Castro’s rule over Cuba requires much sacrifice: thousands of political prisoners, tens of thousands of executions, and hundreds of thousands flee the country. Today, the Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining Marxist–Leninist socialist countries.

And finally, twenty years ago, December 3rd, 1999. Tori Murden becomes the first American—and first woman—to cross the Atlantic Ocean by herself in a row boat. 

MURDEN: I would be at the oars when the sun came up and I’d be at the oars when the sun went down, and I was pretty serious about that time…

The ocean scull includes a small, sealed cabin at the aft. A sliding seat and oar-locks in the center. And a storage compartment in the bow. Her first attempt was cut short a year earlier by Hurricane Danielle.

MURDEN: Cut my tether, cut my sea anchor—they’re both gone. Broken the rib in the top of the boat. I got myself into this…

After making significant repairs and a few adaptations, she’s ready to try again in the late summer of 1999. After 81 days at sea, she rows into Guadeloupe— covering 2,962 nautical miles.

MURDEN: You know, even now, when I’m on whatever shore of the United States looking at the ocean, I’m like: “What was I thinking? That’s a big ocean…”

Today, Tori Murden is the president of Spalding University, a Catholic University in Louisville, Kentucky.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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