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Carlos Lozada -- How will 2009 rank among history's important years?

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By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, December 13, 2009

We saw anti-tax tea parties and White House party-crashers; climate summits and beer summits; one war start to wind down and another begin to ramp up. We watched a plane float miraculously on the Hudson, making a pilot famous, and a balloon float aimlessly across Colorado, making a family infamous. We loathed Bernie, mourned Teddy and mispronounced "Sotomayor." We tweeted Iran, lost out to Rio and looked back on Neverland. We inaugurated hope, bailed everyone out -- and then went a little rogue.

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2009 had something for everyone, more than enough to fill the top-10 lists and cable news video mash-ups that make up our year-end rituals. But in the sweep of history, where will '09 rate? Will it be deemed a truly pivotal year, or merely another random collection of 365 days, featuring one damn thing after another?

Turns out there is plenty of competition in the Big Years department; identifying history's most consequential calendar is a well-worn genre for journalists and historians, producing books such as David McCullough's "1776," Margaret MacMillan's "Paris 1919," Ray Huang's brilliantly titled "1587: A Year of No Significance" and countless more. In 2009, in particular, several works have declared that a given year "changed the world" or was the one in which "everything changed." In an homage to anniversaries divisible by 10, they focus on 1959, 1969, 1979 and, of course, 1989 (though '99 is absent. Too soon?).

These works -- at times contrived, often insightful and almost always pleasurable reading -- not only reveal what big-think types believe mattered most in years past. They also help us forecast how, decades from now, 2009 will be spun, reimagined and reconnected, made into almost anything its chroniclers want it to be.

Fred Kaplan's enormously engaging "1959: The Year Everything Changed" offers a cultural history of America on the edge of the tumultuous '60s -- dwelling as much on transformations in music, film, literature, poetry and comedy as on the early space race, the rise of the first modern computer (the 1 1/2-ton IBM 1401) and the emergence of the birth-control pill. Herman Khan's ominous lectures on nuclear war and Ornette Coleman's revolutionary jazz improvisations set the rhythms of an era marked by, as Kaplan puts it, "the twin prospects of infinite expansion and instant annihilation."

An interesting year, no doubt, and a story well told. But was it a year "when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life" and "when the world as we know it began to take form," as the author asserts? Hmm. Kaplan is wonderful at chronicling what changed and how, but somewhat less so at explaining why the significance of those changes endures, or whether his year of choice was pivotal for a particular phenomenon or trend. For example, his chapter on America's racial tensions, however thoughtful, fails to persuade that 1959 was critical -- and he halfway fesses up. "The tinderbox of race wouldn't explode until a few years later," Kaplan admits. "But it was in 1959 that the kindling was sorted, the fuses prepared, and the matches lined up."

Rob Kirkpatrick faces an even tougher sell with "1969: The Year Everything Changed" (yes, that's the same subtitle). He must outdo 1968, which included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the election of one Richard M. Nixon.

In his introduction, the author jokes that he might have called the book "1969: The Year After the Important Year," and by the end you find yourself agreeing. Kirkpatrick ably takes us from Chappaquiddick to Woodstock, from the Stonewall riots to the moon landing, but he never quite proves that 1969 was "a twelve-month period unparalleled in American history." (When you need the Miracle Mets and the first modern ATM to boost your case, you know you're in trouble.)

Writing recently in Foreign Policy magazine, Christian Caryl makes the case that 1979 was really the critical year, unleashing the economic and religious forces that have remade the world in the three decades since. Caryl's class of '79 certainly includes some compelling characters: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, coming to power in Iran; Margaret Thatcher, starting to remake British politics and global economics; Pope John Paul II, inspiring his native Poland's Solidarity movement; and Deng Xiaoping, moving China toward free markets.

Caryl sees a straight line between his year and the collapse of communism, particularly in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the papal visit to Poland, which "set events in motion that would culminate in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989," he writes. Indeed, Kaplan, Kirkpatrick and Caryl all rely on what one might call the Groundwork Argument -- the notion that even if a year did not feature this or that historic moment, it laid the groundwork for the significant stuff that would follow in some other important year.

One other important year is 1989, and Michael Meyer's "The Year that Changed the World" stands out from the glut of books celebrating its 20th anniversary with a somewhat contrarian case. It wasn't Western pressures converging on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that ended the Cold War, he argues. Rather, the killing of communism was an inside job, pulled off by reformist Eastern Bloc politicians, particularly in Hungary, who were inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev and at least unimpeded by George H.W. Bush.

1989 needs no far-fetched excuses to merit attention; it was a certifiably big deal. But Meyer highlights the year not just because it marked the end of the Cold War, but because he believes we drew the wrong lessons from it. The triumphant West concluded that its moral suasion ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and all that) awakened the impulses of Eastern Europe's freedom-loving people, inspiring them to overthrow their oppressors -- and making us think we could launch the same dynamic elsewhere. "Mistaking cause and effect was the single most critical misreading of the lessons of 1989, and tragically costly," Meyer laments. "For it was a straight line from the fantasy of the Cold War victory to the invasion of Iraq."


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