By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, December 13, 2009; B01
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.
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."
More recently, a straight line has been traced from 1989 to another contemporary war: the one in Afghanistan. "We must not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into chaos and then into Taliban hands," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress this month when testifying about President Obama's new strategy for the war. So, if the end of the Cold War led to the rise of the Taliban, which led to al-Qaeda's haven, which led to the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to the war in Afghanistan, then did 1989 cause both wars?
That's the trouble with history's straight lines; the intersections get confusing.
How will historians regard 2009 one, two, three, 10 decades hence? The summer issue of the Economist's quarterly magazine Intelligent Life features various writers speculating on the most important year ever, and the contenders are illuminating. They include 5 B.C. (a guesstimate for the birth of Jesus), 1439 (Gutenberg's invention of movable-type printing), 1776 (the Declaration of Independence), 1791 (the invention of the nonelectric telegraph), and finally 1944 and 1945, which featured the Bretton Woods conference, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the beginning of the Cold War stalemate.
Surprisingly, 2009 merits a mention. (Go us!) And no, it wasn't because of the inauguration of America's first black president. British journalist Andrew Marr cites the Copenhagen conference on climate change: "If humanity is most threatened by global warming and if it requires urgent international action, then is not the Copenhagen summit quite close to being our last real chance to take it?"
Of course, with Copenhagen's true breakthrough potential unclear, some are already talking about 2010 as the real make-or-break year for climate change. Funny how history changes before it even happens. But the beauty of Copenhagen is that, whatever takes place at the conference, some future scribe will render it a big deal in the inevitable "2009: The Year that Changed Everything" (estimated publication date: 2029). The summit will be remembered as a massive missed opportunity, or an eleventh-hour success, or the impetus for a later deal.
One can imagine similar scenarios for just about every big story of the year. If the lousy economy carries the Republican Party through the midterms and into the White House with Sarah Palin at the helm, 2009 will be cast as the key moment when a barnstorming book tour "changed the country." If not, another narrative may emerge -- how Palin, Limbaugh & Co. dragged the GOP down into ideological incoherence. Either tale will do, and either will feel authentic.
If Obama's presidency ushers in greater racial harmony, his Philadelphia speech of March 2008 will be hailed as the beginning of it all; if not, this summer's comical White House beer bash will be proof that he was in over his head. If Afghanistan turns a corner, the White House's strategic review this fall can be spun as an all-important inflection point; if Iraq regresses into deeper violence, Obama's focus on his war of necessity will become history's tragic irony. If the economy avoids a double-dip, this year will have redefined the relationship between government and business; if some new bubble messes everything up again, it'll be the fault of all those stimulus packages. One way or the other, we're covered.
So, it may not be a 1776 or a 1989, but 2009 seems destined to go down as a year of at least some significance. What for? Who knows. We just live here. Fortunately, it needn't be for something that actually happened in these past 12 months, but perhaps for some future event that will be linked to our calendar.
Even for 2009, there's always next year.
Carlos Lozada is the editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section.