Journal of Cold War Studies 2.1 (2000) 130-132
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The World Transformed
Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert, and Detlef Junker, eds., 1968: The World Transformed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 490 pp.
This weighty and impressive collection of essays by a group of leading German and American scholars is the product of a May 1996 conference in Berlin sponsored by the German Historical Institute. Although continental conferences often end in the publication of "proceedings" that are little more than transcripts of spoken papers and are bereft of scholarly apparatus and thematic coherence, 1968: The World Transformed is of an altogether rarer breed--a volume in which the original papers have been revised and extended, with some entirely new essays added to complement the main themes. The result is a book that not only serves as the record of a conference, but is also an excellent work of scholarship in its own right.
There is no doubt that 1968 was a "watershed" year, to risk using a cliché of historical writing. The causes of the various protest movements that erupted across Europe and the United States, however, are still the subject of much debate and controversy. Many of the participants believed they were taking part in a global revolt against capitalism and imperialism. More recently, as historians have investigated the actions of the "sixty-eighters," they have found supranational links (especially opposition to the Vietnam War) as well as local causes (student activism, worker militancy). One of the key questions concerning 1968 is the extent to which the predominantly student-led protests in Western Europe were related to events behind the Iron Curtain, especially the "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia, where sweeping reforms launched by Alexander Dubãek's Communist regime were ended in August by the Soviet Army. One of the leading authorities on the events of that year, Arthur Marwick, has argued in his recent book The Sixties (1998) that the protest movements in the West "were independent of developments in East Europe, except insofar as they intensified the hatred Western student protesters already felt for Soviet Communism, equated, Marcusean-style, with Western 'democratic totalitarianism.'" The editors of 1968: The World Transformed have a different view, however, asserting that "many of the dissenters in Eastern and Western Europe shared a common hope that a third way might be created between Communism and capitalism" (p. 23).
The most important contribution that this collection makes to the historiography of 1968 is to place the many domestic protest movements within the international context of the Cold War. The editors argue that 1968 was a key year because it witnessed two major challenges to "the hegemonial claims of the two superpowers" (p. 21). While the United States experienced a temporary setback in Vietnam with the Tet Offensive, the Soviet Union was rocked by events in Czechoslovakia and their possible ramifications for the rest of the Communist bloc. These challenges to the superpowers are analyzed in great detail in three of the six chapters that make up Part One of the book, "Tet and Prague: The Bipolar System in Crisis." George C. Herring's opening chapter, "Tet and the Crisis of Hegemony," does a solid and workmanlike job of narrating the familiar story of how the Tet Offensive caused U.S. policy makers to realize that, for the first time in the post-World War II era, the United States had [End Page 130] overreached its imperial power. Herring also explains how President Lyndon Johnson was persuaded to begin scaling down the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The argument that changes in U.S. foreign policy decisions were due to military and economic circumstances, rather than being mainly a response to protests at home, qualifies some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of the sixty-eighters. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker's chapter, "China Under Siege: Escaping the Dangers of 1968," persuasively argues that Mao Zedong's decision to bring an end to the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution (1965-1968) was a direct response to events in Czechoslovakia, which...