Recently, I was thinking about anniversaries and the way a people remember our past. These thoughts were inspired partly by the last post on One Thing after Another which pointed out the difficulty of using past years to frame contemporary events. Our calendar is filled with anniversaries that tell a version of our nation’s history: July 4 and March 17 (at least for Bostonians) as well as April 4 and November 22. And then, of course, there is September 11. Every year the news offers somber reflections on December 7, August 6, and November 9—all dates associated, broadly speaking, with World War II. Earlier this month, President Obama and several former presidents gathered in Texas to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Even the “Google doodle” seems, more often than not, to draw attention to the birthday or death anniversary of some fairly famous (or unfairly obscure) historical figure.
This year, people all over the world are gearing up for reflections on important events that are enjoying “big” anniversaries. This summer marks one hundred years since the outbreak of World War I, which has already prompted numerous stories about the events of 1914, and meta-stories about how we talk about the events of 1914 (and meta-meta blog posts like this one that comment on the commentary about the events of 1914). Although it will probably garner less attention, this September will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that started World War II in Europe. Fittingly, Germany and Poland were at the center of events fifty years later—1989—that signaled the end of the Cold War. Come November, expect countless stories recalling the excitement and awe jubilant Berliners felt at destroying the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain. 1914, 1939, 1989—these years seem to tell the story of Europe in the twentieth century: the spark of two great wars and the events that ended nearly a half century of Cold War, unfolding conveniently at twenty-five and fifty year intervals.
On this side of the Atlantic, Americans will be looking back not only to 1989 (and 1939, and 1914), but also to 1964. In June of that year, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This event took place shortly after the tragic murder of civil rights activists James Earl Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. (A story that was later told in the movie Mississippi Burning, which was released in . . . 1989.) August 2 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on the USS Maddox off the coast of North Vietnam. Two days after the initial clash, American ships mistakenly reported a second attack, which led to U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam and a Congressional resolution authorizing the President to take further action if necessary. The Tonkin Gulf Incident was thus an important step in the gradual Americanization of the Vietnam War.
I had these thoughts in mind when I stumbled across this article about the way we elevate certain years and their particular importance to human history. I’m sympathetic: when we try to force historical truths into tidy boxes that correspond with a single year or decade or century, we run the risk of over simplifying things. When historians talk about the “long nineteenth century,” they acknowledge that historical eras do not fall neatly into one-hundred-year periods. The same is true for specific years. Was there something about 1968 that contributed to social and political upheaval? Was it that different from 1967 or 1969? Or is it something of a coincidence that demonstrations and assassinations unfolded during the same calendar year? In reality, it is probably a little bit of both. Social movements beget other social movements, which explains why they might be concentrated in the same period. And in some instances something about a particular year could in fact make it very different from the years before or after—look at the eruption of Tambora. But often it is pure chance that a sequence of events falls during a single calendar year, and not partly in one year and partly in the next. It is not hard to imagine the events of 1968 starting just a little bit earlier or a little bit later, and thus being spread over two different years. In this alternate history the events might have taken place in the same way, but our image of “1968” would be very different. So I’m skeptical (though a little intrigued) by a book claiming that 1959 was “the year that changed everything.”
At the same time, people seem to respond to this approach. Part of the interest in 1914 is that it really might have been a “year that changed everything.” So if talking about important years gets people to think more about the past, I’m all for it. I just hope that we talk about why a year might be important—but also why it might only be part of a larger story.