At a younger and more naive age, I was prone to romanticizing the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s. I felt early on that my generation lacked a defining struggle. The 1960s held a certain fascination for me: The Soviets fought wars to impose communism on Eastern Europe, the United States fought wars to impose democracy on communist Asia, and the French fought wars to control the Arab population in what little remained of their empire. It wasn't long before my desire for a struggle to define my generation was replaced with the realization that I finally understood James Joyce's observation with horrific certainty: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
It is precisely because of this feeling of dj vu that Mark Kurlansky's 1968: The Year That Rocked The World makes such a well-timed appearance among this year's pile of new releases. Kurlansky presents a compact yet sweeping survey of the events that made 1968 one of the most pivotal years in the history of the country and the world. What makes this book different from a high school student's history text is that Kurlansky's prose is quite readable. He takes an enormous amount of information -- events, names, places and dates -- and finishes with a book that is both informative and easy to read. Historical commentary is often dry, but Kurlansky manages to not slip into an academic tone.
But alas, how little has changed. Substitute "terrorism" for "communism"; "Iraq" for "Vietnam"; and "gay marriage" for "civil rights" and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a book about current events. Students of the '60s demonstrated to protest the low quality and vocational focus of higher education, only to have their complaints echoed 30 years later by contemporary critics of higher education.
The goal of history is to learn who we are by becoming informed about who we were. By that standard, 1968 is a success. As Kurlansky observes, events of the 1960s played a pivotal role in defining today's political climate. One of his most poignant observations, which has startling consequences today, is that 1968 was the year that the Republican Party banished moderates from its ranks. Desperate to appease the Southern voting bloc, the Republican National Committee nominated two-time loser Richard Nixon over the more moderate (and more popular) Nelson Rockefeller. When he became president, Nixon brought bullying tactics to a new level, slandering his enemies and destroying careers in order to promote his singular agenda. The effects of this strategy can still be seen today.
Perhaps Kurlansky overestimates the importance of that one year. One always gets into a certain amount of trouble anytime the superlative is invoked. After all, the world didn't change for the better after 1968. The United States' imperial ambitions were not curbed as a result of defeat in Vietnam. Instead of changing their ways as a result of scrutiny by the new mass media, politicians and military leaders simply adapted television to their own advantage.
But it is not the author's intention to pass judgement on the morality of the year in question. His job as a historian is to answer more fundamental questions: Did it happen? Yes. Was it important? Yes. The book and the events it chronicles are of interest because of their importance. If everyone who had a voice that year had gotten exactly what he or she wanted, Kurlansky's book wouldn't be worth noting. But 1968: The Year That Rocked the World is worthy of our notice because it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of how closely our present appears to resemble our past.
-- Eddie Kovsky
1968: They Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky (Ballantine Books: New York) $26.95/hardcover