The years 1968-1975 were the hinge on which the second half of our century turned. The cultural revolt that we somewhat misleadingly call “the Sixties” reached its apogee in the early Seventies and entered the mainstream of public life and language. “Revisionist” or reform communism heaved its last, optimistic breath in Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968; its defeat signaled first the end of a chimera in Eastern Europe and then, shortly thereafter, the first stage of the dismantling of that same fond hope in the West, with the 1973 translation of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag and the unraveling illusions of Old and New Left alike. In the Middle East the unstable post-’67 truce between Israel and the Arab states was followed by the “Yom Kippur” war, the oil embargo and price rise, and a radically altered power configuration both in the region and between the Arabs and the great powers. In South Asia a new country—Bangladesh—was born, in the course of a war between India and Pakistan.
In 1968 the United States was still a major presence in Southeast Asia, with over half a million troops in South Vietnam alone. Of greater significance, it was also still the world’s banker, thanks to the postwar arrangements set in place at Bretton Woods in 1944: the dollar, whose relationship to other currencies was based on fixed exchange rates, was the international reserve currency, backed by US gold reserves. From August 1971 this unsustainable and increasingly symbolic role was abandoned to national and international policy initiatives and the fluctuations of trade and currency markets. In a related development the member states of the European Community voted the following year to commit themselves to the goal, however distant, of political unity. The nervous but familiar certainties of the cold war gave way to “détente”: between the US and the Soviet Union (SALT 1, the first international agreement to limit strategic armaments, was signed in 1972), and between Germany and its eastern neighbors following Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the treaties and agreements he secured with the Soviet Union in 1970 and the years that followed.
In Asia the United States, after studiously ignoring Communist China for two decades, entered into a series of communications and meetings with Chinese leaders that would culminate (in 1979) in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, something that would have been unthinkable for most American politicians and statesmen of the cold war era. By April 1975 the US had been evicted from Vietnam and Cambodia; two months later the Helsinki conference on security and cooperation in Europe was convened. The dramatic international developments of the 1980s were still unforeseen and unthinkable (for all but a few imprisoned dissidents in Eastern Europe); but their foundations were now in place.
Throughout this protean moment in the international and national history of our times, the foreign policy of the most important country in the world was effectively run by one man, Henry Kissinger—first as national security adviser, then as secretary of…
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