21 August 1821

Jarvis Island is discovered by the crew of the ship, Eliza Frances.

The island’s first known sighting by Europeans was on August 21, 1821 by the British ship Eliza Francis or Eliza Frances owned by Edward, Thomas and William Jarvis and commanded by Captain Brown.

The US Exploring Expedition surveyed the island in 1841. In March 1857 the island was claimed for the United States under the Guano Islands Act and formally annexed on February 27, 1858.

Jarvis Island was reclaimed by the United States government and colonized from March 26, 1935 onwards, under the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project see also Howland Island and Baker Island. President Franklin D. Roosevelt assigned administration of the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior on May 13, 1936. Starting out as a cluster of large, open tents pitched next to the still-standing white wooden day beacon, the Millersville settlement on the island’s western shore was named after a bureaucrat with the United States Department of Air Commerce. The settlement grew into a group of shacks built mostly with wreckage from the Amaranth lumber from which was also used by the young Hawaiian colonists to build surfboards, but later, stone and wood dwellings were built and equipped with refrigeration, radio equipment, and a weather station. A crude aircraft landing area was cleared on the northeast side of the island, and a T-shaped marker which was intended to be seen from the air was made from gathered stones, but no airplane is known to have ever landed there.

At the beginning of World War II, an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine surfaced off the west coast of the Island. Believing that it was a U.S. Navy submarine which had come to fetch them, the four young colonists rushed down the steep western beach in front of Millersville towards the shore. The submarine answered their waves with fire from its deck gun, but no one was hurt in the attack. On February 7, 1942, the USCGC Taney evacuated the colonists, then shelled and burned the dwellings. The roughly cleared landing area on the island’s northeast end was later shelled by the Japanese, leaving crater holes.

21 August 1991

A coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev fails.

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Just three days after it began, the coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev collapses. Despite his success in avoiding removal from office, Gorbachev’s days in power were numbered. The Soviet Union would soon cease to exist as a nation and as a Cold War threat to the United States.

The coup against Gorbachev began on August 18, led by hard-line communist elements of the Soviet government and military. The attempt was poorly planned and disorganized, however. The leaders of the coup seemed to spend as much time bickering among themselves–and, according to some reports, drinking heavily–as they did on trying to win popular support for their action. Nevertheless, they did manage to put Gorbachev under house arrest and demand that he resign from leadership of the Soviet Union.

Many commentators in the West believed that the administration of President George Bush would come to the rescue, but were somewhat surprised at the restrained response of the U.S. government. These commentators did not know that at the time a serious debate was going on among Bush officials as to whether Gorbachev’s days were numbered and whether the United States should shift its support to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin’s stock rose sharply as he publicly denounced the coup and organized strikes and street protests by the Russian people. The leaders of the coup, seeing that most of the Soviet military did not support their action, called off the attempt and it collapsed on August 21.

The collapse of the coup brought a temporary reprieve to the Gorbachev regime, but among U.S. officials he was starting to be seen as damaged goods. Once a darling of the U.S. press and public, Gorbachev increasingly was viewed as incompetent and a failure. U.S. officials began to discuss the post-Gorbachev situation in the Soviet Union. Based on what had transpired during the August 1991 coup, they began a slow but steady tilt toward Yeltsin. In retrospect, this policy seemed extremely prudent, given that Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Despite the turmoil around him, Yeltsin continued to serve as president of the largest and most powerful of the former soviet socialist republics, Russia.

21 August 1979

The Soviet ballet dancer Alexander Godunov defects to the United States.

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Alexander Godunov was a Russian-American ballet dancer and film actor, whose defection caused a diplomatic incident between the United States and the Soviet Union. On August 21, 1979, while he was on a tour with the Bolshoi Ballet in New York City, Godunov contacted authorities and asked for political asylum. After discovering his absence, the KGB responded by putting his wife, Lyudmila Vlasova, on a plane to Moscow, but the flight was stopped before take-off. After three days, with involvement by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the U.S. State Department was satisfied that Vlasova had chosen to leave of her own free will, and allowed the plane to depart. Vlasova later said that while Godunov loved American culture and had a long desired to live in the United States.