Anniversaries are, of course, of merely numerological significance. If God in His wisdom had given us six fingers on each hand instead of five, then we should have to wait 144 years to celebrate the centenary of a great man, and there would be 1,728 years in a millennium. As it is, we nod in perfunctory recognition as the 10th, 25th, 50th or 100th anniversary of some momentous event passes by. There is no harm in this. It is good to cast a backward glance once in a while, and these numbers, though arbitrary, are convenient pegs on which to hang our remembrances.
A 25th anniversary has some slight extra significance, as 25 years make up more or less one human generation. In 25 years a new cohort of humanity is born, grows to maturity, and begins to accomplish things in the world. This is also about the period that a middle-aged person can look back over with complete understanding, having lived through it in full and worldly consciousness.
Let us look back 25 years from the present day, then, to 1979. I believe a case can be made — I am going to try to make it — that 1979 was a key year in modern history, the year a great logjam began to shift and break up.
The major events of that year can easily be listed.
- Communist China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations, and Deng Xiaoping came visiting.
- Iran underwent a revolution. The Shah left, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from 15 years of exile, and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis began.
- Pope John Paul II visited Poland.
- Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the U.K.
- The Carter presidency began its slow disintegration, and Ronald Reagan announced that he would be a candidate in the 1980 presidential election.
- China invaded Vietnam, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, Russia invaded Afghanistan.
Every one of these events cast a long shadow forward through time. For example: China's Deng Xiaoping had already determined upon economic reform and put forward the slogan: "To get rich is glorious!" Others in his party still needed convincing, though. Deng's U.S. trip, and the TV broadcasts of it beamed back to China, opened the eyes of Deng's colleagues to the distance their country had fallen behind the West, and made the necessity of reform plain to all. Back home again, Deng launched the free-trading New Economic Zones. At the same time he cracked down savagely on those seeking political liberalization, crushing the Democracy Wall movement and jailing Wei Jingsheng, the highest-profile dissident, after a show trial. The main outlines of Chinese policy were thereby set for the rest of the century and beyond: verligte economics, verkrampte politics.
The Iranian revolution was, of course, an appalling disaster for that country. It was also a key factor in the implosion of the Carter presidency. In retrospect, it is hard not to feel sorry for Jimmy Carter. As often happens with failing projects — Herbert Hoover comes to mind — once the Fates had decided against him, they piled on, and misfortunes came thick and fast. The first were already showing up in 1979: the Three Mile Island catastrophe in March, the 24 percent OPEC price hikes in June, the resignation of Andrew Young in August. Then, at the end of the year, in quick succession came the Chrysler bail-out, the takeover of our Teheran embassy, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Carter's famous "malaise" speech of July 15 makes melancholy reading now. A clever and sincere man, filled with public spirit and the desire to do good, Carter had the misfortune to be President at time when his particular weaknesses were just those most disastrous to the nation and his plans. Abroad, amoral despots and madmen with bazaar-trading skill sets behind their glittering eyes combined to make him look like a babe in the woods. At home, as David Frum chronicled in his book about the 1970s, Carter presided over a time when the great shifts of thought and behavior that the baby-boom pioneers of the 1960s had pioneered — hedonism, anti-authoritarianism, "loathing" of the military, the obsession with equality and rights and "root causes" — had soaked deep into American life. Possibly the country was ungovernable by 1979. Certainly it is depressing to see an earnest man telling the nation plain truths that it did not (and, a cynic might add, still does not) care to hear:
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
Tell it, preacher! But Carter's own faults — his naivety, feebleness of will, and obsession with detail — contributed much to the malaise he complained of. The year closed with an annual inflation rate of 11.3 percent, the highest in thirty years.
Of the three great figures who together took up arms against the negative trends of that time, the first had already mounted the world stage in 1979. In October of the previous year, Karol Wojtyla had been elected Pope at the comparatively young age of 58. A vigorous man of firmly conservative convictions, John Paul II swiftly asserted his church's role in world affairs, mediating a dispute between Argentina and Chile, receiving the Soviet Foreign Minister in audience, and then, in June of 1979, paying the first ever Papal visit to a communist country, his own native Poland. Those nine days in Poland changed everything. From them came the rise of the "Solidarity" workers' movement the following year, and from that, in ever swifter steps, the collapse of communism in Europe. As Michael Gorbachev himself ruefully testified: "It would have been impossible without the Pope."
The second of those three world-changing figures appeared on May 4 of that pivotal year. I was living in England myself at that time. Late in January I had left the country to visit friends in Hong Kong. The leaving, in bitterly cold weather, had itself been something of a trial. This was Britain's "winter of discontent," when the country was plagued by strikes, inflation, and economic mismanagement. The teams responsible for de-icing the runways were in some sort of dispute with the management of Gatwick airport, and I was stuck in the departure lounge all night with several dozen angry travelers. When we got into the air at last, I remember recalling an observation of Tim Garton Ash's, that when a plane outward bound from the U.S.S.R. crossed the Iron Curtain into the free world, the pilot would sometimes announce the fact, and the passengers would burst into applause. I felt inclined to do the same as the coast of late-socialist Britain passed beneath and behind us.
I came back three months later just in time to see Margaret Thatcher's party elected into government. It was actually at the home of some left-wing friends that I watched the election coverage on TV. My friends were in a sour mood, of course, and I felt vaguely sorry for them. I had not paid much attention to the campaign, being out of the country for its entire duration; but when I saw the news clips next day of Mrs. Thatcher coming to Downing Street from the Palace, speaking plain clear words to a confused and unhappy nation, I knew that something great and good was in the air, that some corner had been turned. The words she spoke were actually, she told us, from St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
My instinct was correct. In Britain, and soon in the world, a great reaction had commenced. On November 13, in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in yet more plain, inspiring words: "A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny … [W]e will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and — above all — responsible liberty for every individual."
The miserable shuffling retreat had been stopped. Western civilization had turned to face its enemies, both those inside the walls and those without. The war that then commenced is not yet over. Perhaps it never will be; but it was in 1979 that we got our nerve back, picked up our discarded weapons again, and resolved to fight. This was the year it all changed, the year the ice cracked.