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Context of 'October 18, 1987: US Risks Being Drawn into War with Iran, Warns Senate'

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F-14 spare parts shipped to Iran.F-14 spare parts shipped to Iran. [Source: Reuben Johnson / Weekly Standard]Israeli officials secretly ask Reagan administration officials for authorization to transfer arms of US origin to Iran. Officials in the Departments of Defense and State have known of Israeli arms sales to Iran that predate Reagan’s installation as president and the freeing of the American hostages, and since Reagan’s ascension to power, plans for US arms sales to Iran have been in the works (see January 28, 1981). Secretary of State Alexander Haig tells Israel that it is acceptable “in principle” for Israel to sell only F-4 fighter plane parts, and the US must approve specific arms-sales lists in advance. It shortly becomes evident, according to State Department documents leaked years later to the press, that Israel is not submitting lists for approval, and is selling US-made arms to Iran far in excess of spare parts for a specific model of fighter jet. (By the mid-1980s, officials will acknowledge that several billion dollars’ worth of ammunition and parts worth would flow from Israel to Iran each year.) Little oversight is exercised on the arms sales; one US ambassador to the region will say in 1992, “[I]t is probable that those who were to serve as their proxies—Israel and private international arms dealers—had agendas of their own, and the end result was that more arms were shipped than anyone in the administration wanted.” The Israeli arms transfers also violate the Arms Export Control Act, which requires written permission from the US for a nation to transfer US-made arms to a third party, and requires the president to immediately inform Congress when such transfers take place. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Arms Export Control Act, US Department of State, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Alexander Haig.Alexander Haig. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The newly installed Reagan administration publicly maintains a hard line against Iran, a nation vastly unpopular among Americans who have not forgiven that nation for holding 52 of its citizens hostage for well over a year and murdering a CIA station chief. (Years later, Vice President Bush will call it “an understandable animosity, a hatred, really,” and add, “I feel that way myself.”) President Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, says bluntly, “Let me state categorically today there will be no military equipment provided to the government of Iran.” Yet within weeks of taking office, Reagan officials will begin putting together a continuing package of secret arms sales to Iran. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Alexander M. Haig, Jr., George Herbert Walker Bush, Reagan administration, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Osirak nuclear facility.Osirak nuclear facility. [Source: GlobalSecurity.org] (click image to enlarge)On the order of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and after heated debate among Israeli leaders, Israeli warplanes strike the Osirak (also spelled Osiraq) Tammuz I nuclear plant at al-Tuwaitha near Baghdad, destroying it and dealing a severe setback to Iraq’s nuclear program. Israel claims it fears Iraq is building a nuclear weapon with which to strike it. Osirak is a French-made nuclear reactor, which is near completion but lacks any nuclear fuel, thereby raising no danger of any radioactive link. Ariel Sharon, concurrently Defense Minister and a proponent of the strike, later says, “This was perhaps the most difficult decision which faced any [Israeli] government during all the years of the state’s existence.” The Israeli government states after the strike, “The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing, whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose.… Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.” The reactor is slated to be completed by September, 1981, though it would be years before it could produce any nuclear-grade fissionable material. Iraq denies the reactor is developed to produce nuclear weapons, though the construction of the plant gives credence to claims that Iraq is more interested in building a weapon than generating electricity. (After the strike, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein says, “Any state in the world which really wants peace… should help the Arabs in one way or another to acquire atomic bombs,” giving further credence to suspicions that Hussein wanted to build a nuclear weapon.) The Israeli strike follows up a September 1980 raid on the Osirak facility by Iranian warplanes (see September 30, 1980). Publicly, Iran and Israel are dire enemies, but Israel has begun secretly selling US-made arms to Iran as a way to counterbalance the threat posed by Iraq (see 1981). [BBC, 7/7/1981; New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Institute for Strategic Studies, 5/1995] In 1984, Brookings Institution fellow Lucien Vandenbroucke will write, “Ironically, Israel’s raid may prove to be a brilliant tactical success achieved at the expense of the country’s long-term interests. Certainly, the attack set Iraq’s nuclear program back several years. But the strike also ushered in a de facto Israeli claim to nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, a move that in the long run generally promises to encourage the larger Arab world on the nuclear path.… In the decision-making process, Israeli fears and the propensity to rely on worst-case analyses seem to have prevailed. The advocates of the strike focused on the unreasonable, rather than the reasonable, aspects of Iraqi behavior, and thus even a limited prospect that Iraq might soon acquire a nuclear bomb became more of a risk than they were prepared to accept.” [GlobalSecurity (.org), 10/1984]

Entity Tags: Brookings Institution, Saddam Hussein, Lucien Vandenbroucke, Menachem Begin

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Caspar Weinberger.Caspar Weinberger. [Source: US Department of Defense]Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a vehement opponent of the US’s arms sales to Iran (see 1981 and December 20, 1983), concludes that if Iraq doesn’t receive military aid, it will lose its war with Iran (see September 1980). Weinberger arranges the secret swap of a Soviet T-72 tank given to the Iraqi military in return for four US howitzers. Some Pentagon intelligence officials covet the Soviet tank for the information they can glean about Soviet weaponry, but, according to two highly placed officials in the Reagan administration, Weinberger sees the deal as an opportunity to begin direct US arms shipments to Iraq. A Pentagon official explains in 1992, “Cap’s view was that once the first arms shipments to Iraq were authorized by the President, the first bite of the forbidden apple had been taken, and other direct covert arms sales to Iraq would follow.” However, the exchange falls through when the Iraqis, fearful that the Soviet Union will terminate its own military aid program, withdraws from the deal. A subsequent Iraqi offer to exchange a Soviet HIND helicopter also falls through when the Pentagon expresses its concerns over the criminal record of the middleman, a Lebanese-born international arms trafficker. However, Reagan and Defense Department officials continue to find ways to secretly supply arms to Iraq (see October 1983). Later, Weinberger will call the Iranian arms deals “insanity. How could you send arms to the Ayatollah when he was sworn to destroy us?” But Weinberger will be much less forthcoming about the US’s arms sales to Iraq, summed up under the sobriquet of “Iraqgate.” Weinberger will later claim that he is not involved in any arms deals with Iraq, and will say, “The little that I know was that it was all handled by the CIA. There might have been a role by some people in the Pentagon. But I didn’t keep a hand in that.” He will refuse to acknowledge the accuracy of Pentagon memos from 1982 and 1983 sent directly to him that outline proposals to arm Iraq. In a 1992 news article, reporters Murray Waas and Craig Unger note that Weinberger will repeatedly lie “without compunction” about his involvement in arms sales to Iraq over the coming years, and observe, “Whenever his credibility is questioned, Weinberger routinely invokes concerns for national security and hides behind a veil of secrecy.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, Caspar Weinberger, Reagan administration, Murray Waas, Craig Unger

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

William Eagleton, the chief of the US-interests section in Baghdad, writes a memo that asserts the US can secretly supply arms to Iraq for use against Iran through third-party nations. “We can selectively lift restrictions on third party transfers of US-licensed military equipment to Iraq,” he writes. Although Eagleton is not the architect of this policy—that is primarily Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Shultz’s assistant, Richard Murphy, who fear that Iran will lead a rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region—Eagleton’s memo heralds the onset of US arms transfers to Iraq through several regional countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. The arms transfers are almost certainly illegal, a direct violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which directs the president to inform Congress if any such third-party arms transfers are enacted. Reagan officials decide not to inform Congress because they know Congress will never approve the arms transfers, particularly in light of the US’s stated policy of neutrality towards the Iran-Iraq War. Congress also knows nothing of the Reagan administration’s secret supplying of arms to Iran (see 1981). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: William Eagleton, George Shultz, Richard W. Murphy, Caspar Weinberger

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Rumsfeld greets Hussein.Rumsfeld greets Hussein. [Source: Washington Note.com]US Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld—formerly the Secretary of Defense and now the CEO of the pharmaceutical company, GD Searle and Co.—personally meets with Saddam Hussein for 90 minutes in an attempt to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iraq. Rumsfeld also discusses US interest in the construction of the Iraq-Jordan Aqaba oil pipeline [to be built by Bechtel (see December 2, 1983)]. [US Department of State, 12/10/1983 pdf file; Iraqi television, 12/20/1983; US Department of State, 12/21/1983 pdf file; MSNBC, 8/18/2002; Newsweek, 9/23/2002; Washington Post, 12/30/2002; London Times, 12/31/2002; Vallette, 3/24/2003; New York Times, 4/14/2003] Rumsfeld does not raise the issue of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons with Saddam. [US Department of State, 12/21/1983 pdf file] Rumsfeld also delivers a letter to Hussein from Reagan administration officials declaring that for Iraq to be defeated by Iran (see September 1980) would be “contrary to United States interests.” Rumsfeld’s visit represents one side of the somewhat double-edged US foreign policy in the region: the US has allowed Israel to sell US-made arms to Iran for use against Iraq (see 1981). By this time, the US has already started clandestinely providing arms to Iraq as well (see October 1983). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] After his meeting with the Iraqi president, Rumsfeld meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. They agree that “the US and Iraq… [share] many common interests.” Rumsfeld briefly mentions US concerns about Iraq’s chemical weapons, explaining that US “efforts to assist [Iraq]… [are] inhibited by certain things that made it difficult for us….” [US Department of State, 12/21/1983 pdf file] On September 19, 2002, almost two decades later, Rumsfeld will be questioned in Congress about this visit (see September 19, 2002). [US Congress, 9/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Donald Rumsfeld, Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Graham Fuller.Graham Fuller. [Source: Ohio University]The US tilts ever more sharply towards Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, even though the Reagan administration continues to maintain a posture of overt neutrality in the conflict. The administration has provided covert military aid for both sides in the struggle (see 1981 and October 1983), and has been divided over which regime to support (see January 14, 1984). It is already involved in “Operation Staunch,” a program designed by Secretary of State George Shultz to stem the flow of weapons to Iran. Now, some officials are arguing that it is time to reverse that course. Graham Fuller, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Middle East, writes two controversial secret memos advocating that the administration begin providing support for Iran against Iraq. Fuller is presenting a position long held by national security director Robert McFarlane and two of McFarlane’s aides, Oliver North and Howard Teicher. This pro-Iran group has recently been joined by CIA director William Casey. Both McFarlane and Casey are supportive of Fuller’s memo. Fuller writes in a May 17 memo, “Our tilt to Iraq was timely when Iraq was against the ropes and the Islamic revolution was on a roll. The time may now have to come to tilt back.” Fuller argues that the US should once again authorize Israel to ship US arms to Iran. Ironically, this is the mirror image of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s argument in favor of supporting Iraq: the US must counter one covert policy with another (see Early 1982). The pro-Iranian coalition within the administration gives scant consideration to the hostage-taking of seven Americans by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite militant group with strong ties to Iran’s theocratic regime. On May 20, Fuller circulates a second memo, called a “Special National Intelligence Estimate” (SNIE), that is only read by a handful of senior White House officials (Ronald Reagan is one of the recipients; George Bush is not). Fuller’s memo is written almost entirely for Reagan’s benefit, and in its arguments, becomes a basis for renewed arms sales to Iran and the resulting Iran-Contra scandal. Fuller evokes one of Reagan’s favorite themes, the trouncing of the Soviet Union in the global arena: “We know that the USSR views Iran as ‘the prize’ in the Gulf. Moscow will improve relations when and where it can… until it gains major influence in that state. The disturbing possibility is that the USSR is far more likely than the US to be first in finding opportunities to improve its ties to Iran.” Interestingly, in 1991, during Robert Gates’s Senate hearings on becoming the director of the CIA, it is learned that Fuller’s memo contradicts the views of career Soviet analysts at the agency, who believe that the Soviet Union has no real hope of making inroads into the Iranian regime. The USSR is the chief arms supplier for Iraq, Iran’s bitter enemy and current opponent in a long and bloody war. Iran is arming the Afghan mujaheddin, the Islamist resistance fighters viewed as a threat by Saddam Hussein. Several CIA analysts will later testify that they believe Fuller deliberately slanted his memo for political reasons. In 1992, Fuller himself will admit that he was wrong, but will deny any politicization. Regardless, Fuller’s memo becomes a critical document shaping the Reagan policy to arm Iran. It is not clear whether Vice President Bush ever saw the memo, but whether he did or not, beginning in 1985 he takes part in numerous White House meetings where the arming of Iran is discussed. If he has objections to the policy, he never voices them. [Time, 11/17/1986; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, William Casey, Robert M. Gates, Oliver North, Reagan administration, Robert C. McFarlane, George Herbert Walker Bush, Graham Fuller, Central Intelligence Agency, Howard Teicher, Caspar Weinberger, Hezbollah, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

David Kimche.David Kimche. [Source: Mark Leighton / Bettmann / Corbis]David Kimche, the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, meets secretly with National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane to advise him that Israel may be able to use its influence with Iran (see 1981) to engineer the release of American hostages currently held by Hezbollah. Kimche’s outreach is the final piece in the complex arms-for-hostage deal between the US, Israel, and Iran. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] Israel is a logical conduit for arms to Iran, as it has been selling arms to Iran periodically since 1979, originally as part of its efforts to get Iran to allow Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel. Like the US, Israel hopes to gain influence with Iranian moderates who will presumably take power after the aged, ailing Islamist radical Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dies. (Earlier attempts to sell US-made arms to Iran had been blocked by the Carter administration.) According to Israeli sources, this Israeli offer began with a group of Israeli businessmen informing Prime Minister Shimon Peres in early July that they had been in contact with Iranian officials, and thought they could facilitate an arrangement to swap US arms for American hostages. The Israelis say that the US point man for the deal is John Poindexter, the deputy national security adviser, and Poindexter tapped National Security Council aide Oliver North to be the US liaison to Israel. Peres quickly authorized the Israeli businessmen to resume their contacts with the Iranians, and the businessmen contacted Saudi arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi. Khashoggi obtained a long list of desired military equipment from the Iranians, including Hawk antiaircraft missiles and radar-guidance equipment for them, antitank missiles, and spare parts for jet fighters. [Time, 11/17/1986]

Entity Tags: Oliver North, Carter administration, Adnan Khashoggi, David Kimche, John Poindexter, Robert C. McFarlane, Shimon Peres, Hezbollah

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

A major meeting to codify the arms-for-hostage deal with Iran takes place in Ronald Reagan’s private White House quarters, after Iranian officials sent requests to open negotiations with the US through backchannel sources. Reagan, recovering from intestinal surgery and wearing pajamas and a bathrobe, is joined by Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, White House chief of staff Donald Regan, and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. McFarlane, passing along information he has received from Israel (see 1981), says the Iranians will see to it that Hezbollah releases four American hostages in return for US and Israeli arms. McFarlane has long supported arms sales to Iran, and is most supportive of the deal; Weinberger and Shultz, who support dealing with Iraq, are firmly against it. But the deal will go through (see September 15, 1985). [Time, 11/17/1986; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Donald Regan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Robert C. McFarlane

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who has opposed the arms-for-hostage deal with Iran from the outset, warns President Reagan that the arms transfers are patently illegal under the Arms Export Control Act (see 1981). Weinberger later says, “There was no way in which this kind of transfer could be made if that particular act governed.” According to Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also present, Reagan answers, “Well, the American people would never forgive me if I failed to get these hostages out over this legal question.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

CIA Director William Casey introduces a plan to break the stalled arms-for-hostages deal with Iran that has been moribund for over a month (see Late May, 1986). Like his boss President Ronald Reagan, Casey has a powerful Cold War mentality and a love of covert operations; like Reagan, Casey believes that building relations with Iran is a way to counter Soviet expansionism. Casey’s plan appears on the agenda of a meeting of the Contingency Pre-Planning Group (CPPG), an inter-agency committee consisting of mid-level representatives of the National Security Council, the Departments of State and Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA. The meeting focuses on Iraq’s failures in its long, dismal war against Iran. Casey believes that if Iraq escalates its air attacks on Iran, Iran will need more and more arms from the US, and that will force it to conclude the stalled arms-for-hostages deal on favorable terms. And Casey, ever the espionage aficionado, is playing the two opposing factions—one pro-Iran, one pro-Iraq—within the administration (see January 14, 1984) against one another, according to two CIA aides who work closely with him. Those aides, who speak to reporters in 1992 after leaving the agency, will say he even keeps some White House officials ignorant of the “double nature of his plan.” In furthering his own murky strategies, Casey is also enlisting the support of State and Defense Department officials who fear an imminent Iranian victory. Casey believes that the war will continue as a stalemate for several years, but he deliberately slants his intelligence assessments to paint a graver picture of Iraq’s imminent defeat (Iraq’s fortunes in the war are grim enough to require little embellishment).
CPPG Unable To Find Solutions for Iraq - The CPPG is tasked with shoring up the US’s commercial and financial relationships with Iraq, a chore for which the group cannot find an immediate solution. The CPPG has also considered using Jordan as a conduit for arms to Iraq, similar to the way Israel has served as a conduit for US arms to Iran (see 1981), but the group rejects that idea because, according to a memo from the meeting, “any such transfer has to be notified to the Congress and thus made public.”
Iraq's Antiquated War Strategies - The group finally discusses a matter that plays into Casey’s plan, Iraq’s failure to fight the war in a modern fashion. Iraq uses its powerful air force extremely poorly, at times seemingly afraid to commit planes on missions that might put a single aircraft at risk. Former ambassador Richard Murphy will say of Iraq, “The Iraqis were fighting the way Germans might have in the First World War. They were good at holding a defense line, which is useful in holding back the human waves of Iranians. But when it came to their air force they were inept. On bombing missions, in particular, the Iraqis were so afraid to lose planes that they often didn’t undertake missions, and when they did they did only things that were safe.” Reagan has already issued secret authorizations for Saudi Arabia to transfer US-origin bombs to Iraq, to induce it to use its air force more effectively (see February 1986), to little avail. Now the CPPG says that Vice President George Bush might help out; Bush is making a trip to the Middle East as Reagan’s “peace envoy” (see July 23, 1986). The CPPG decides that Bush might suggest to Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Mubarak that the two “sustain their efforts to convey our shared views to Saddam regarding Iraq’s use of its air resources.” The CPPG is not sanguine about the likelihood of Bush’s success, considering the distrust Saddam Hussein maintains for the US. The CPPG recommends that the White House send “a senior US emissary” to confer directly with Hussein; the CPPG is apparently unaware that Casey has already spoken privately with Bush and asked him to meet in secret with Hussein (see July 23, 1986). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Hosni Mubarak, George Herbert Walker Bush, Contingency Pre-Planning Group, Central Intelligence Agency, Hussein bin Talal, National Security Council, US Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Department of State, William Casey, Richard W. Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Claiborne Pell.Claiborne Pell. [Source: Brown University]The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports that the US faces a dire choice if Iran is victorious in its war with Iraq. The choice, the committee reports, is “between permitting Iran to dominate the West’s oil supply in the Persian Gulf, and direct US military intervention… .” The report warns that the US, having agreed to protect Kuwaiti shipping in the Persian Gulf from Iranian attacks, “seriously risks being drawn into war” against Iran, and notes that Gulf nations believe the US is siding with Iraq in the war, “and the expanded US naval presence is likely to invite more Iranian attacks of increasing severity.… American naval forces in the Gulf are now, in effect, hostage to Iraqi war policy.” The Senate is debating whether to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires Congress to either declare war in the region or withdraw funding for the US military presence in the Gulf. The Reagan administration opposes the move, and it is doubtful a majority in Congress will vote to invoke the resolution. The report calls the US policy of escorting Kuwaiti tankers “dangerously nebulous.” The Reagan administration agreed to protect the tankers after Kuwait threatened to turn to the Soviets for help if the United States refused. Most Gulf nations believe Kuwait’s threat to ask for Soviet help is nothing more than a “feint” to involve the US in the war; few believe Kuwait is serious about turning to the Soviets for assistance. The report says that although “the flow of oil is not in serious jeopardy,” “shipping in the gulf now appears less safe than before the US naval buildup began.” Iran has recently sown Gulf waters with mines, posing a threat to Kuwaiti and other shipping in the area. Interestingly, though the report is critical of Reagan administration policy in the Gulf, it does not recommend reversing course. The US cannot retreat from its promise to protect Kuwaiti shipping without risking “great cost to US credibility in the region.” Claiborne Pell (D-RI) says, “This report shows that the danger of a possible Iraqi collapse is greater than commonly understood, and that the perils for us in the Gulf are certain to increase.” The report notes that because of the White House’s secret arming of Iran (see 1981), Iraq faces the real possibility of defeat in the war, with potentially catastrophic results for the US. “US policy in the Persian Gulf has been shaped as much by a short-term desire to restore credibility lost in the Iran-Contra affair as by any careful assessment of US interests and objectives.” [Boston Globe, 10/19/1987; New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Reagan administration, Claiborne Pell

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

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