MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, June 8th, 2020. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book.
Thirty years ago this week, Boris Yeltsin declares Russian independence. Plus, 65 years ago—the deadliest accident in auto-racing history.
REICHARD: But first, the story behind a worldwide organization helping those with addictions—here’s Paul Butler.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today on Mother’s Day weekend, 1935. A surgeon in Akron, Ohio, named Robert Smith is drunk, lying on the floor under the dining room table. Anne—his wife—is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Just then, the phone rings. On the other end of the line is a New York businessman—in town for work.
The caller is a Christian named Bill Wilson. He’s just had a business venture fall through and is vulnerable. He’s upset, all alone, in a strange town, and the draw of the hotel bar is strong. He’d heard of Dr. Smith through an acquaintance and thought perhaps they could help each other. Smith is in no condition for visitors, so they agree to meet up the next day. Audio here of Bill Wilson from a 1964 documentary.
WILSON: The doorbell rang, there stood Dr. Bob and Anne…he was shaking violently, and said: “I have another engagement, I don’t believe I can stay but a few minutes…”
Bill takes Bob to a private room, and tells him his story. Dr. Smith listens intently. The two men become instant friends. Wilson even moves in with the Smiths for a time. On June 10th, 1935, Smith takes his last drink, begins making amends with people he’s hurt, and Alcoholics Anonymous is born.
Today there are more than 2 million active members of AA groups around the world and it all started with a simple, honest conversation.
Next, June 11th, 1955, in Le Mans, France. More than 200,000 spectators gather for the annual running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race.
NEWSREEL: The 60 starters are in their stride, thundering away to gain that early lead…
The prestigious contest is not a fixed distance race. Rather, drivers run an eight-and-a-half-mile circuit for 24 hours. Whoever travels the farthest over the duration of the race wins.
The drivers are almost like jockeys in horse racing. Many are well known, but it’s the cars—and the car companies—most people come to see.
NEWSREEL: The leaders streak past the grandstand in the early laps with Mercedez, Jaguar, and Ferrari’s well to the fore…
During the 35th lap, the frontrunners begin making their way to the pit for refueling and minor adjustments.
NEWSREEL: All seems to be going smoothly when disaster strikes going 125 miles per hour. Levegh’s Mercedes collides and blows up.
The car disintegrates as the engine block, hood, and front-end catapult into the grandstand, sweeping away complete swaths of spectators.
NEWSREEL: In a few ghastly seconds, death wipes out whole families. Levegh is killed before his wife’s eyes, and some 70 spectators with him.
Race officials fear a mob if they red flag the competition, so they agree to let it continue. The back-up driver for Mercedes enters the race, but within hours, the company quietly pulls the car, and withdraws from the race.
NEWSREEL: Doctors, priests, uninjured survivors do their best, but 79 men, women, and children, are dead or dying in the worst disaster in motor-racing history…
Due to the accident, many European countries temporarily ban all motorsports until racetracks are made safer. Within three months, a few circuits are reopened so the ‘55 racing season can finish.
Within a year, most countries allow racing again, with redesigned pit facilities, and greater protections for the fans and drivers. However Switzerland doesn’t allow the sport to restart for nearly 60 years—not until 20-15, and only then with electric cars.
And finally, we head to Russia:
In the late 1980s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, was unraveling around the edges. Democratic protests were common, and the centralized socialist propaganda machine could no longer hide the growing call for freedom across the republic.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was just the beginning. By the next summer, five former Soviet republics held democratic elections and successfully left the USSR: Lithuania, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, and Armenia.
The democratic movement was growing in Russia as well. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced social and political reforms in the mid 1980s. Those freedoms had now grown beyond his control.
In May of 1990, Borris Yeltsin was elected chairman of Russia, the largest territory of the USSR. The Russian congress wanted control over its own affairs and on June 12th, 1990, declared national sovereignty.
While largely a symbolic vote, it laid the groundwork for a new constitution and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
AUDIO: [RUSSIAN ANTHEM]
Since 1992, Russians have marked June 12th as “Russian Independence Day,” and today as simply “Russia Day.”
That’s this week’s WORLD History Book, I’m Paul Butler.