1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

What Colin Powell told the general about the My Lai massacre
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The Independent Culture

1968 was a long time ago. A woman astonished Italy by refusing to marry her rapist, thus denying him the customary reprieve. Someone shouted "retire!" at De Gaulle as he passed by in a pre-May motorcade and was fined 500 francs for "attacking the honour of the Head of State". Airline stewardesses were subject to "touch checks" to ensure they were wearing girdles. The year used to cast a long historical shadow, but since the Fall of the Wall and 9/11, 1968 has become, like 1492, 1776, 1814, 1848, 1914 and 1929, just another big date in history, barely qualifying for that elite list.

The headlines of protest and cultural warfare are familiar, but how many know that the first year of the Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris was spent negotiating the shape of the table? Or that the first fatality of the pre-Olympic massacre of Mexican students was an army general shot by a white-gloved secret policeman provoking the soldiers? Or that Tet offensives were a Vietnamese tradition going back to 1789? Mark Kurlansky's book provides us with endless enthralling details about events now reduced to pop-history cut-outs. With subjects from Cod to Salt to The Basques, he has secured a niche as a writer who cuts vertically through the past wherever fancy takes him, producing revealing core samples. With 1968, for a change, he slices horizontally.

The book begins unpromisingly with a survey of the first week in January. Errors catch the eye, from the trivial (putting OJ Simpson on the wrong college football team) to the grave (implying Yugoslavia was a member of the Warsaw Pact). Things improve once he settles into his rhythm with a country-by-country account of the year's political earthquakes.

The final chapter lapses into emotive language but Kurlansky's dead-pan reportage is the real strength of this book. He reveals a year far more resonant than we might think. In the US, the stumbling campaign of Nelson Rockefeller allowed the Right to capture the Republican Party and wield their Southern Strategy: no northern Democrat has won the Presidency since. After a soldier reported the My Lai massacre to him, Major Colin Powell dutifully assured his superiors there was no basis to the allegations. The US military in 1968 vowed never again to wage war with a conscript army, but to recruit volunteers "in need of employment" and keep the campuses quiet.

In Eastern Europe, activists concluded that communism was incapable of reform. When Soviet power crumbled in 1989, they embraced capitalism, only for many to regret, like Jacek Kuron in Poland, that "my participation helped people accept the Dictatorship of the Rich." Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, source of some great quotes in 1968, said "the destiny of the human race depends on America... like passengers in a jet forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks and madmen fight for the controls."