restricted access CHAPTER 4 The Retreat of Empires and the Global Advance of the Market

From: The 1970s

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Chapter 4 THE RETREAT OF EMPIRES AND THE GLOBAL ADVANCE OF THE MARKET Across the political spectrum, Americans tend to think of their country and their history as exceptional. From the fortuitous geographical buffer of two vast oceans to a founding Constitution that emphasized liberty, from a robust base of natural resources to regular inflows of industrious immigrants, the United States has appeared to most of its citizens and to many foreign observers as a land uniquely blessed with wealth and freedom. But the American story is not separate from the larger narrative of world history. Historians of U.S. foreign relations have long made this point, and other historians of the United States have more recently begun to develop a similar perspective. The United States in the 1970s did not stand apart from the rest of the world but fit into the broader tale of global history. Because of the diversity of the Earth’s societies in political and social development, all nations and peoples in this era did not march in lockstep with each other; as the Cold War and other conflicts revealed, trends around the globe at the time seemed to be heading in very different directions. But in retrospect, it is now possible to see that the 1970s American story of moving simultaneously toward greater egalitarianism and toward greater faith in the free market fit with a similar pattern taking shape around the world, one emphasizing human rights and national self-determination, on the one hand, and the declining legitimacy of socialism and government management of economies, on the other.1 The Soviet Union was the biggest loser. Committed denier of 176 CHAPTER 4 human rights to its own citizens, imperial opponent of selfdetermination throughout the eastern half of Europe, and center of command economies and socialist history across the twentieth century, the regime in Moscow in the 1970s seemed to reach the apex of its world influence and then begin a rapid descent toward oblivion. Marxism made new gains in revolutionary circumstances across the Southern Hemisphere. Communists seized control of Cambodia and all of Vietnam in 1975; Marxists won out in newly independent Angola and Mozambique in the same year and soon thereafter in Ethiopia; and the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the intensely pro-American dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979, while leftist rebels threatened to seize control of the government in nearby El Salvador. From the Soviet KGB on the Left to American neoconservatives on the Right, many observers thought—briefly—that the Soviets were advancing, an idea punctuated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. This apparent advance, however, turned into a retreat and then a rout. For anticommunists, it turned out to have been darkest just before dawn. Even before the Red Army bogged down in Afghanistan, economic decline was undercutting the legitimacy of Soviet rule at home,while the human rights conventions signed as part of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 opened new space for political dissent in the USSR and in Communist-ruled Eastern Europe. Even the supposed advance of Soviet influence into the Third World was not so clear. Egypt, for example, sent home Soviet advisers in 1972 and instead developed a close relationship with the United States, which Cairo recognized as offering much greater leverage in their regional contest with Israel. For at least a generation, Americans had believed Communism to be a single unified threat to U.S. interests, a hostile conspiracy straddling Eurasia and headquartered in Moscow. But by 1969, Chinese and Soviet troops were instead skirmishing with each other along their common border. In 1972, President Nixon’s visit to Beijing initiated a tacit U.S.-Chinese alliance against the USSR. And in 1979, Chinese and Communist Vietnamese troops clashed in a THE RETREAT OF EMPIRES 177 brief border war. As the 1970s revealed to Americans, Communists were not at all united, and they could even serve as unofficial allies of the United States. Indeed, Communists by 1979 were hardly even still Communists, in light of the pro-market reforms begun in China. The Soviet empire was in deep trouble, and market forces were infiltrating into what had recently been, under Mao Zedong, the most fiercely anti-capitalist nation on Earth. One can interpret these events as the tragic ebbing of communitarian and altruistic values, or as the wondrous retreat of savage totalitarianism, or as something in between these two, depending on one’s political stance, but one...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1969-.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1960-1980.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1969-1974.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1974-1977.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1977-1981.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1971-1981.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1945-1989.
  • United States -- Commerce -- History -- 20th century.
  • Equality -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nineteen seventies.
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