I have been reading the various “decade series” in this and other newspapers over the “holiday season,” and feel suitably reviewed and instructed upon what has happened in this century, so far.
Though frankly, if I were editor (and the reader should be very glad I’m not), I would instead have assigned all available experts to review the antepenultimate decade—the 1980s. Or better, perhaps, the 1970s: for I think we may now be getting into a position to acquire some “perspective” on that. The 1990s were too recent; things like the Clinton presidency in the U.S., the capitalist adjustments in China, the blossoming of Islamism and so forth, are still too current in their repercussions.
Not that even today we know everything that needs to be known about the 1970s; nor ever will, in this life. There is no journalist, and no historian, who can write in possession of “all the facts.”
Let us consider Watergate as a good, 1970s example of this. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we now know who did what to whom in the finest detail; and the fallout from it was always there for everyone to see. That Richard Nixon was brought down as president is an incontrovertible fact of history.
But to begin to understand the 1970s, we must further explain how this happened; must understand how a president who had almost certainly done fewer and lesser crooked tricky things behind the scenes than, say, the media-sainted John F. Kennedy—and who had certainly not stolen an election—could have been brought down.
I remember a “Bulletin de l’étranger” from Le Monde in those days—a perfectly leftist, anti-American paper with an indisputable abhorrence for Nixon—expressing an almost unconsciously amazed puzzlement at his resignation. To their “progressive” yet knowing view, no French president could ever have dreamed of resigning for such piddling offences, nor any French legislature dreamed that they could impeach him. What on earth was going on in America?
And then we had Gerald Ford as president. That was silly enough; but then we had Jimmy Carter. And through almost all of that decade, a prime minister up here named Pierre Trudeau. Believe it or not, these men were taken seriously. We can only begin to see what a strange era that was, only begin to appreciate the flakiness into which public life had descended, at this distance.
That the 1970s also represented a kind of aesthetic nadir for Western Civilization we may see by examining contemporary magazines. Even with our current, deeply depressed standards, we instinctively flinch at their apparel. It was by extension a boring, pointless decade: I pity anyone who had to grow up in that era, and am inclined to understand their propensity to mind-altering drugs.
All this, and many other things that cannot possibly be discerned from within, must come into the review of a decade. And yet the opposite argument can be made, that “you had to be there.” (I tried not to be; I tried to spend that entire decade in backward, “third-world” locations, such as southern Asia and pre-Thatcher England.) With the recession of time it becomes harder and harder to explain the sheer stupidity of human behaviour.
Yet things that happen, and are accepted as having happened, continue to have happened through all subsequent time.
Dwell with me for a moment, gentle reader, over this awkward thought. Our entire world today is built on the presumption that the idiocies of the 1970s actually occurred. The American defeat in Vietnam, for instance: subsequent U.S. history entirely depends on the “mood” that was created by that ignominious departure.
America herself would continue to lead the West, would become with the collapse of the Soviet Union the “hyperpower,” and even more absurdly rich. She had it in her power, through the “lost decade” of the 1990s, to fashion a “new world order” in which much of the violent squalor that afflicts us today could not have developed.
Yet she also had, in her corporate person, an Achilles Heel, and a fatal want of confidence. Even under Reagan, the U.S. would do things like scuttle out of Beirut in a way that would leave the entire Middle East in chaos. At the crucial moment, the powers of Islamism were surrendered to, and this was more than a question of “priorities elsewhere.” Reagan and George Shultz, his remarkable secretary of state, threw American weight around brilliantly, in opposition to the Evil Empire, yet declined the critical role of “world policeman,” with consequences we still must bear.
This world is full of illusions: powerful and consequential ones. Our “zero” decade—or perhaps we might call it tentatively the “Improvised Explosive Decade”—strikes me in retrospect as a mere continuation, in world affairs, of the unending retreat from Vietnam.