In 1963, the leaders of the two global superpowers stared each other down over the Cuban missile crisis, and one of them blinked—to the good fortune of the human species. Over the next two decades, Cold War tensions eased. The Vietnam War, in which the United States failed to prevent the establishment of a communist regime in Southeast Asia, came to a painful end. A pragmatic approach to political issues yielded important international agreements, including those concerning arms limitation and the rules of war.
And then, unexpectedly, the Soviet Union faltered. The Cold War had been in progress since 1946, when Churchill so eloquently identified an imagined “Iron Curtain” that divided the Soviet and Western domains. In 1989, liberating themselves, German onlookers seized what weapons lay at hand and tore down the very real Berlin Wall, built on Khrushchev’s order in 1961 to separate the zones of the free and the unfree. Its eastern European satellites all broke loose in 1989; in the last days of 1991, the mighty Soviet empire crumbled.
Readers of this chapter will explore:
how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War, and divisions within the West’s Cold War strategy;
how Vietnam involvement catalyzed the creation of the student protest movement;
how protest engendered cultural transformation and eventual radicalization;
how an era of pragmatic diplomacy diminished tensions and yielded new international agreements; and
how the Soviet Union imploded, and the Cold War came to an end.
The Vietnam conflict
Occupied by the Japanese in World War II, the former French colony of Vietnam promptly declared its independence once the war was over. For nearly three decades thereafter, supported by communist allies in China and the Soviet Union, it would fight for its freedom first against the French and then the Americans.
The United States in Vietnam
The United States did not sign the Geneva Accords (see Chapter 28), which formalized the French withdrawal from Vietnam. Instead, the United States aggressively supported a non-communist regime in South Vietnam. Americans employed the “domino theory,” which held that if Ho prevailed in Vietnam, the surrounding countries would become Communist like a “falling row of dominoes.” Yet the U.S.-sponsored Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963)—an autocratic Catholic governing a predominantly Buddhist nation—was poorly suited to the task of nation-building. In 1960, the newly formed National Liberation Front (NLF), which consisted of Communist cadres left behind in South Vietnam, rebelled. As the conflict intensified, the United States orchestrated a coup by South Vietnamese generals, who toppled the government and assassinated Diem on November 1, 1963. But the insurgency intensified. To prevent a complete South Vietnamese collapse, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) escalated the U.S. military role in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, over 180,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam; by the end of 1967, 500,000.
U.S. policymakers described their willingness to stand by an embattled ally in faraway Southeast Asia as proof of their determination to safeguard more strategically vital NATO nations. This line of reasoning perplexed European leaders, most of whom expressed considerable doubt about U.S. policy. (Only Australia unconditionally backed the United States in Vietnam.) The British provided lukewarm support in public, but privately questioned the American involvement. They repeatedly rebuffed U.S. requests to send troops to Southeast Asia. Sweden’s Social Democratic government championed a diplomatic settlement to the conflict on terms favorable to the North Vietnamese. Future prime minister Olof Palme (1927-1986), at this point a cabinet minister in Sweden’s SPD government, gave several high-profile addresses denouncing the conflict as an American colonial war. Palme even joined North Vietnam’s ambassador to Moscow in an anti-war march held in Stockholm.
The most intense opposition came from de Gaulle, who publicly endorsed the neutralization of South Vietnam—a first step, all understood, to a communist triumph in Southeast Asia. De Gaulle’s proposal reflected a broader pattern in which the French president distanced himself from the European alliance. In 1963, France joined China in refusing to ratify the Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty; the next year, it conducted its first successful test of a nuclear weapon. By 1966, de Gaulle’s relationship with the United States had so deteriorated that France withdrew from NATO and ordered U.S. troops off its soil. The next year, France vetoed Britain’s petition for membership in the Common Market, claiming that London was more an Atlantic (a code for pro-U.S.) than a European power. As U.S.-Israel ties grew closer, de Gaulle affirmed that “France must align itself with the Arabs.” France implemented an arms embargo against Israel following the 1967 Six Days’ War (see below). The French president then denounced Jews as an “elite people, self-assured and domineering,” who were engaged in “oppression, repression, and expulsion” against their Palestinian neighbors.
Throughout his 11 years as French president, de Gaulle tried to position France as head of a European bloc that would balance the United States on the one side against the Soviets on the other. Such a vision might have been suited to the world of the mid-19th century, but by the 1960s, it was out of place. De Gaulle’s actions threatened the unity of the Western alliance, but he never realized his goal of creating a continental Franco-German bloc (headed, of course, by France).
The protest movement
The U.S. involvement in Vietnam catalyzed a student protest movement across the United States and Europe. In the United States, a vibrant and often light-hearted counter-cultural movement accompanied political opposition. In Europe, the student protest movement was more potent and threatening, coalescing at its extreme with revolutionary and even terrorist activity.
The Sixties generation set out to transform the politics, society, and culture of the West. The generation born in the shadow of the bomb—the product of a postwar demographic bubble, bulging in numbers, unique in self-absorption—transformed the world. This “baby boom” cohort, the first ever threatened from birth by global annihilation, reached adolescence during the 1960s, when its members erupted in protest against the Cold War and its makers. “All you need is love,” the British rock music group “The Beatles” proclaimed in 1967, in a live performance broadcast worldwide via satellite to some 400 million listeners.
In the United States, many of those who criticized the war in Vietnam had already worked to end the country’s policy of legalized racial segregation. A combination of grassroots pressure and favorable judicial decisions culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which mandated desegregation of the nation’s public schools. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to follow a law mandating African-Americans to move to the back of the bus. Civil rights groups then organized a boycott of the city’s public bus system. The action brought to national prominence a charismatic young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), who practiced non-violent resistance as taught by Gandhi. King’s national standing peaked at the August 1963 March on Washington, when he proclaimed, “Let freedom ring.” With Lyndon Johnson providing effective leadership from the White House, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave the Attorney General broad powers to protect the political rights of African-Americans.
The decade’s young protesters also created a new popular culture that reached beyond America around the globe. Costume and style told the story of cultural transformation. Spurning their fathers’ gray-flannel suits and their mothers’ housedresses, the decade’s youth dressed in stark black, or in exotic peasant frocks, or, most often, in blue jeans, the dark denim uniform of the working class. Movement pacesetters favored bizarre hats, or accessories with a military theme (camouflage, knapsacks, boots), or non-precious jewelry crafted by the indigenous population of the Americas, Africa, or Asia. Where older adults sipped cocktails, the student rebels of the Sixties took up drugs—ranging from marijuana (which produced mild effects comparable to moderate alcohol consumption) to “hard drugs” such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), heroin, and cocaine.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, where censors controlled culture, life was quite different. There novelists, poets, physicists, and historians covertly circulated in samizdat (“self-publication,” by hand-delivered manuscript) their critique of a society distorted by communist repression. Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), who had experienced the 1917 revolution and its Stalinist aftermath, eluded the censors by publishing in Italy his Doctor Zhivago (1957). The novel breathed disillusionment with the whole Bolshevik experiment. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, eventually printed in Paris after long samizdat currency, appalled the world with their stories of Soviet forced-labor camps. The powerful voices of such dissidents as the physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) and historian Roy Medvedev (1925–) also circulated in secret in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Captivated by U.S. popular culture, most Europeans were as indifferent to these trends in literature and thought as they were to cinema. Rock music and movies, radio and television, the casual dress of anti-establishment youth, above all the uniform of blue jeans and T-shirts—these were the prizes consumers sought. Beyond the Iron Curtain, such treasures circulated in the underground, or “black,” market.
During the 1960s, Cold War tensions gradually gave way to a more normal existence in Western Europe. With more families able to afford a middle-class lifestyle, the number of students attending college exploded. By the late 1960s, Europe’s institutions of higher learning were filled with students who retained little or no memory of World War II. Influenced by a pronounced leftist intellectual vision on campus, many in this student generation viewed Europe’s ruling class as the enemy. Some even embraced a spirit of revolution.
The transformation of social democracy. In 1959, at a party conference in Bad Godesberg, West Germany’s SPD renounced Marxism in favor of supporting a mixed economy and the welfare state. The SPD’s move toward the center formed part of a broader trend among European socialist parties. In Britain, Harold Wilson (1916-1995) captured the 1964 elections to become the first Labour prime minister since 1951. Yet Wilson initiated no new major programs, and his domestic agenda scarcely differed from that of his Conservative predecessor, Harold Macmillan (1894-1986). In Italy, the Socialist Party regularly served as a junior partner in cabinets headed by Christian Democratic prime ministers. Even in Scandinavia, where the Social Democrats governed in Sweden, Denmark, and (after 1963) Norway, the political left focused more on protecting the status quo—the postwar welfare state—than in launching a new revolution.
The SDS. As the West German SPD moved to the center, the party’s student organization, the SDS (German Socialist Student Group), rebelled. The SDS reoriented itself to protest the evils of American imperialism—and the capitalist, consensus-oriented culture that the student radicals believed the United States had imposed on Western Europe. The wave of student protests began in West Berlin, at the city’s Free University. (The institution, ironically, was itself a product of the Cold War, created after the University of Berlin fell inside the Soviet-occupied portion of the city.) In 1966, SDS activists railed against the German visit of American Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978). The next year, the SDS targeted a visit to West Berlin by the Shah of Iran, who the students perceived as the caricature of a Third World autocrat supported by the United States.
By aggressively confronting the German establishment, the SDS made more enemies than supporters. A late 1967 poll showed that 83 percent of West Berliners opposed the student activities, and no more than five percent of West Germany’s students participated in any protest. But as 1968 dawned, the student protest movement spread—behind the Iron Curtain to Poland and Czechoslovakia, south to Italy, northwest to London, and, most importantly, west to France.
The Paris uprising
Conditions in France were ideal for a major student protest. That Charles de Gaulle, who turned 78 in 1968, remained as president symbolized the continuing power of the pre-World War II generation. France had nearly four times as many college and university students in 1968 than it had in 1955, exceeding the capacity of many educational facilities. Ideologically, the New Left dominated the French campus. The group consisted of figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980; see chapter 28), and like-minded professors repulsed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary but still committed to a radical agenda. And, in any case, previous opposition to the war in Algeria (1954-1962; see Chapter 28) had created a campus atmosphere receptive to calls for radical change.
The French student uprising began at the University of Paris at Nanterre, an overcrowded satellite campus. A militant left student group, the enragés (“angry ones”), demanded liberation for the Third World and celebrated the writings of Mao Zedong and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. A series of anti-Vietnam rallies culminated with students occupying the Nanterre administration building. School officials then closed the campus, hoping to cool the protest. Instead, on May 3, 1968, outbursts spread to France’s most prestigious university, the Sorbonne in Paris. Under the leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit (1945- ), students affirmed their “outright rejection of the capitalist-technocratic university, of the division of labor, and of so-called neutral knowledge—supplemented by a call for solidarity with the working class.”
As students set up barricades in the streets, police cracked down, injuring 1,000 and arresting nearly 500. The violence in Paris only increased popular support for the students, and Cohn-Bendit called for a general strike in sympathy. In early May, 800,000 workers, students, and leftists participated in a march protesting de Gaulle’s rule. De Gaulle initially underestimated the threat. (The President speculated that behind their flowery rhetoric, the student leaders really wanted permission to bring mistresses into their dormitory rooms.) Prime Minister Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) privately proposed pay raises to end the strikes and isolate the students. But, ignoring the advice of most union leaders, the workers rejected the government’s offer. By the third week of May, 10 million workers around the country had gone out on strike. Ridiculing de Gaulle, the students described the situation as “The General Will against The Will of the General.”
As the protests intensified, the authority of the state itself seemed to be collapsing. The leader of the French Socialists, François Mitterrand (1916-1996), publicly speculated about his replacing de Gaulle as President. Both the largest French union, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), and the French Communist Party held massive anti-de Gaulle protests. But the president then battled back. After privately securing support from the French army, he publicly denounced the students and strikers as advocates of “totalitarian Communism.” A half-million supporters of the president participated in their own march, with slogans such as “France back to work!,” “Clean out the Sorbonne!,” and “We are the majority!” De Gaulle called snap elections, and pro-government parties scored an overwhelming victory. The students had taken on the state—and the state had prevailed. De Gaulle’s political career, however, was finished. In April 1969, he resigned the presidency. But the Fifth Republic that he helped create survived. Conservative presidents would govern France for the subsequent 12 years.
The student unrest with the most immediate impact occurred not in France or West Germany but in Eastern Europe. In Prague, protests by students and intellectuals—including Czechoslovakia’s future president, Václav Havel (1936- )—denounced the Stalinist regime of Antonín Novotný (1904-1975). The unrest prompted a rare first-hand inspection from Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982). After visiting Prague, Brezhnev conceded, “Comrade Novotný hasn’t the slightest idea about the true state of affairs.”
With even the hard-line Brezhnev criticizing his performance, Novotný’s political support eroded. In late 1967, the head of the Slovak Communist Party, reformist Alexander Dubek (1921-1992), replaced Novotný. Though Dubek proclaimed his loyalty to Moscow, he hoped to chart a course between the students’ demands and Novotný’s hard-line policies by creating “socialism with a human face.” Dubek’s program encouraged innovative ideas, public criticism of past government actions, and the creation of non-political independent groups. Soon, however, affairs spiraled beyond his control. Symbolizing the challenge to the Communist Party’s role in Czech life, student protesters successfully demanded that the government open an inquiry into the death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk (1886-1948) two decades before.
As the “Prague Spring” grew more ambitious, Soviet propagandists fiercely denounced “antisocialist elements” in Prague. Brezhnev privately demanded that Dubek curb his reforms, but the Czech leader refused. And so, in August 1968, the Soviet leader authorized an invasion of Czechoslovakia by 165,000 Warsaw Pact troops. Even the communist rulers of Yugoslavia and Romania, neither of which participated in the operation, criticized the Soviet decision. For the third time in three decades, outside intervention snuffed out independent government in the central European nation.
In early 1969, Jan Palach (1948-1969), a student at Prague’s Charles University, set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion. Every year thereafter on the anniversary of Palach’s death, admirers lit candles at his gravesite. Such remembrances were necessary under the rule of Dubek’s successor, Gustáv Husák (1913-1991), called by some the “President of Forgetting.” Facts that could not be forgotten were obfuscated. When the Masaryk inquiry proved that the late foreign minister had not killed himself, the Husák regime ludicrously claimed that the portly Masaryk had accidentally fallen to his death while performing a yoga exercise on his windowsill. In the first years of Husák’s reign, the Czech Communist Party expelled roughly 500,000 people from its rolls—around 3.5 percent of the country’s population.
Terror and terrorism
As student movements around the world fell short of their ideals, some on the far left of the protest movement resorted to violence. Radicals borrowed from the writings of Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), a German Jewish philosopher influenced by both Freud and Marx whose 1955 Eros and Civilization foreshadowed many of the intellectual currents of the 1960s New Left. In his work, Marcuse posited a “natural right of resistance” through extralegal means if legal efforts seemed inadequate to compel social change.
The RAF. Perhaps the most destructive of the new organizations was West Germany’s Red Army Fraction (RAF). This group, founded in 1968, claimed to act on behalf of the world’s “oppressed” peoples, promising to use urban guerilla war to bring “an anti-imperialist struggle in the metropoles.” The RAF’s initial manifesto envisioned German radicals imitating their counterparts in Latin America in embracing armed violence, given that “it can only be here, as it is there, the method of revolutionary intervention of generally weak revolutionary forces.”
In 1970, the RAF organized a series of bombings against U.S. troops stationed in West Germany, claiming a need to avenge the deaths of Vietnamese citizens. The RAF also targeted West German businesses or security organizations considered agents of imperialism. After the capture and imprisonment of key RAF leaders in 1972, the group briefly went into decline. But it re-emerged as even more violent in a series of terrorist attacks between 1975 and 1977, which sought to force the West German government to free jailed RAF leaders. This second wave of terrorism culminated in the kidnapping and assassination of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a powerful West German businessman. A draconian police crackdown ultimately suppressed the RAF, most of whose leaders committed suicide in prison.
Red Brigades. As the RAF weakened, Italy’s Red Brigades emerged as the continent’s most feared left-wing terrorist organization. Founded in 1969 on hard-line Marxist-Leninist principles, the Red Brigades demanded Italy’s withdrawal from NATO and an assault against the state, which the group’s rhetoric termed “an imperialist collection of multinational corporations.” Over the course of their existence, the Red Brigades undertook dozens of attacks against Italian businessmen, military figures, and politicians. The group’s most spectacular action came in the March 1978 kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro (1916-1978). Terrorists held Moro for 55 days before murdering him, spurning calls for his release from Pope Paul VI and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. As in West Germany, severe terrorist activity provoked a counter-reaction. The Moro killing shocked the Italian political classes, and a police crackdown that effectively dismantled the Red Brigades by 1981.
The IRA. Ireland suffered from the most serious 20th century European terror movement. After independence, the island’s six northeasternmost provinces, where Protestants comprised around 60 percent of the population, remained under British control. In 1967, Northern Catholics formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which—imitating the tactics of Martin Luther King—organized peaceful public protests against Unionist discrimination. Irish television recorded the marchers being manhandled by the Unionist police, while Protestant extremists headed by Ian Paisley (1926- ) launched armed attacks against predominantly Catholic areas. This widespread sectarian conflict prompted the British to send troops to keep the peace.
Through the 1960s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) remained under the control of leftist intellectuals who called for Northern Protestants and Catholics to unite for a worker-based socialist revolution. Though they spouted revolutionary clichés about anti-imperialism and social solidarity, they did little to translate their words into actions. Late 1969 witnessed formation of a splinter organization, the Provisional IRA, which called for Northern Catholics to wage a terrorist campaign against Protestants and British troops.
On “Bloody Sunday” (January 30, 1972), British forces fired upon a Catholic demonstration in Londonderry, killing 23 civilians. The IRA responded with “Bloody Friday” (July 21, 1972), planting 22 bombs in and around Belfast. Two British troops as well as seven civilians (both Protestant and Catholic) were killed; another 130 people were seriously injured. As the 1970s proceeded, the IRA focused less on achieving any discernible political goal and more on killing. The organization’s principal outside support increasingly came from rogue states, such as the Libya of dictator Muammar Qaddafi (1942- ), or other terrorist groups, such as the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Over the course of its 35 years of paramilitary operations (1970-2005), the IRA murdered 1,775 people, and maimed several thousand more.
The PLO. Europe’s new terrorism formed part of an international trend. Beyond the continent, the most prominent terrorist organization of the early 1970s was the PLO. Founded in 1964 to promote a secular, socialist Palestinian homeland, the PLO’s charter focused less on its political vision than on demands for Israel’s immediate destruction. The group’s most notorious attack occurred at the 1972 Olympics, hosted by Munich, West Germany. Terrorists from the PLO’s Black September faction took hostage and then killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
Despite such activities, the organization gained some support from the European left, who condemned Israel for occupying the Gaza Strip, the formerly Jordanian-controlled West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The Jewish state had hoped to bargain land for peace following its victory in the Six Days’ War (1967), but no Arab nation would negotiate. Instead, the international environment strongly turned against Israel. In 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism—the belief that Jews are entitled to a homeland on the site of ancient Israel—with a form of racism. The United States and every non-communist country in Western Europe voted against the resolution; the Soviet Union and every member of the Warsaw Pact supported it. Future UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later described the resolution as a “low point” in the organization’s history, and the UN repealed the measure in 1991.
Ideological and tactical links brought together European and Middle Eastern terrorism. RAF founder Andreas Baeder traveled to the Middle East to receive training from Palestinian guerrillas. In 1977, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa flight and demanded the release of 11 imprisoned RAF leaders, including Baeder, as well as two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (German commandoes stormed the flight in Mogadishu, Somalia, killing three of the terrorists and freeing all the passengers and crew.) The previous year, a group of German and Palestinian revolutionaries hijacked an Air France commercial flight. When the plane eventually landed—in Entebbe, Uganda—the German hijackers separated the Jews on the flight from the other passengers. Over several days of negotiations, the terrorists released some passengers, but kept hostage the flight’s non-Israeli Jews and its 77 Israeli citizens. The blatant anti-Semitism of the Entebbe hijackers called into doubt the German far left’s claims to have moved beyond Germany’s Nazi past.
In a dramatic rescue operation, an Israeli Special Forces team liberated the hostages and killed the hijackers. Three hostages and the young commander of the Israeli operation, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu (1946-1976), were killed in the rescue. Netanyahu’s brother would later serve as prime minister of Israel.
Radical politics and counter-cultural style did not exhaust the repertoire of the Sixties generation. Its members also advocated complete reproductive freedom for women as part of a broader sexual revolution, and ecological activism that subordinated political and economic goals to environmental priorities. This agenda of personal rights and environmental sensitivity they advocated figured prominently among the concerns of a growing class of advocacy groups called non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The sexual revolution
In this most intimate sphere of human behavior, the young again defied the values of their elders. Courtship rituals, female chastity, monogamy, even fidelity in non-marital relationships—all these were questioned and rejected. Where the fear of unwanted pregnancy had once deterred women from the path of sexual radicalism, a new pharmacological discovery—the birth control “pill”—made it feasible. By 1967, more than 12.5 million women worldwide were on the pill.
The sexual radicalism of the Sixties achieved a profound social revolution. In all previous civilizations, male elites had overseen the sexual regulation of their families. Now a vanguard group, harvesting the product of the socialist and feminist movements of the past two generations, rejected all sexual regulation, with enduring effects on culture and society. “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” singer Bob Dylan instructed his elders, “for the times they are a-changin’.”
The sexual revolution encouraged the forging of a new feminism that sought freedoms for women of all social classes. This new feminism built on earlier feminist ideals, restated vigorously in two important books. In 1949, the French writer Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908–1986) manifesto, The Second Sex, made a postwar generation of women aware of the social denigration of women. In 1963, American Betty Friedan’s (1921–) The Feminine Mystique identified the cultural forces that denied women power and responsibility. The mirage of “femininity” controlled women’s lives, Friedan argued, confining their thoughts to housecleaning and hairdos, and their days to shopping and self-doubt.
Women’s rights must include, feminists insisted, the liberty to make choices about their bodies, including the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Communist nations pioneered the movement to legalize abortion, citing Lenin’s dictum that no woman should have to bear a child against her will. The Soviet Union permitted free abortions at all hospitals beginning in 1920. Stalin revoked the right in 1936, but a 1956 decree restored the original policy. The next year, Communist China mandated free abortions at a woman’s request. With the exception of Albania, the Eastern European nations enacted similar policies, although declining birthrates led to some restrictions in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
In most Western countries, on the other hand, abortion was illegal until the early 1970s. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated all restrictions on abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. That same year, Denmark became the first European country to legalize abortion on demand. Other culturally liberal states, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands, quickly followed suit. Opposition from the Roman Catholic Church kept abortion illegal in France, West Germany, and Italy until the mid-1970s, and anti-abortion laws remained on the books in Belgium, Spain, and Portugal until the late 1980s. After that point, abortion was legal everywhere in Europe except for overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland and Malta.
Paradoxically, the demands of contemporary feminism for women’s complete liberation contradicted the maternalist goals offered by earlier feminist leaders, who contended that women’s most powerful role was in the family. Emphasis on women’s reproductive rights pointed away from maternalism, insisting that women be free to have few or no children; and to make those choices independently of their fathers, or the men whose offspring they carried.
Advocates of the traditional family generally opposed both of these assumptions. They claimed that abortion and other mechanisms—easy divorce, certain tax measures—undermined the stability of the family. But their voices had little effect on the broader culture. In Britain, for instance, the divorce rate was six times higher in 1966 than in 1938; by 2001, the rate was nearly four times higher than the 1966 level. The rate of increase climbed even more dramatically in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
The most powerful European voice for social conservatism, the Roman Catholic Church, vehemently opposed the increased availability of both birth control and abortion. Yet even the Vatican tried to adapt to the new cultural climate. Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, modernized various church procedures. Seeking to involve the laity more in the religious experience, the Church dropped its requirement that all masses be conducted in Latin. Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-1978) reached out to Jews and other Christian religions. Vatican II also passed resolutions urging a more modern approach to Christian education, and adopting a more tolerant attitude regarding the relationship between the Church and democratic states, like Britain or Germany, whose public policies often conflicted with Church teachings.
In 1962, the publication of Silent Spring by American Rachel Carson (1907–1964) re-introduced a shocked audience to ecology. A term (Ökologie) coined in the late 19th century work of German natural philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), ecology concerns the relationship between organisms and their environment—and especially the impact on the environment of those uniquely destructive organisms, modern human beings. From the 1960s, activists promoted an ecological perspective that championed preservation of the environment and conservation of natural resources.
Carson explained how the toxic substances in materials used to promote agricultural productivity—chemicals that killed pests, fungi, and weeds—threatened environmental stability. In Europe, the fate of the forests brought increased attention to environmental matters. Sulfur dioxide emissions had left the forests of Poland, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, and Finland in decay, while also polluting the continent’s main rivers—the Danube, the Vistula, the Rhine. Protection of the environment became an especially pressing issue for the young, who chastised their elders for having plundered the natural world. As the environmental movement intensified, it changed in important ways. Originally, environmentalists stressed quality-of-life issues—ensuring clean air and water, protecting the environment for human enjoyment. By the late 1970s, however, environmentalism became interlinked with the international energy crisis. This transformation made the cause more controversial.
The Oil Shock. In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Timely U.S. support helped Israel repel the attacks. The European response was far more ambivalent—both France and Italy refused U.S. requests to use their refueling facilities for planes supplying Israel. In retaliation, the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) implemented an oil embargo, which adversely affected Western Europe as much as the United States. With supplies dramatically curtailed, oil prices rose by roughly 300 percent. A subsequent four-fold price increase followed the 1978-1979 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran and brought to power the Islamic fundamentalist government of Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989).
Western Europe was particularly vulnerable to rising oil prices. Among its nations, only Britain and Norway possessed natural supplies of crude oil (in the North Sea), but before the OPEC price spikes, neither government had much economic incentive to develop them. Moreover, while public transportation remained more prevalent in Western Europe than in the United States, the region had come to share some of America’s automobile culture. Between 1948 and 1965, the number of citizens owning cars in Britain more than quadrupled (from 2 million to 9 million). In France, the number of car owners more than quintupled (from 1.5 million to 9.6 million; the figure would rise to 21 million by 1988). West German car owners increased from 200,000 in 1948 to 9 million in 1965, while the Volkswagen automobile company symbolized the nation’s economic resurgence.
While most wanted cheap oil and gas prices, environmentalists maintained that responding to the oil shock by increasing production of other traditional energy sources would exacerbate problems. Coal was cheaper than oil, in ready supply, and had long played an important role in the economies of the United States and Western Europe. Yet burning it harmed air quality, and mining it in large quantities was often destructive to the land. Nuclear energy was much less expensive than oil, and had become widely used. France, with 59 nuclear power plants generating 78 percent of its energy, led the way. A regional atomic power consortium, Euratom, was created in 1957. Environmentalists, however, pointed to hazards associated with disposing radioactive waste. Their cause was strengthened by accidents at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania (1979) and at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine (1986).
The oil crisis and its aftermath affected the American and European environmental movements differently. In the United States, high energy prices and an economic slump produced a backlash against environmentalism. The change was most clearly demonstrated in the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a movement in Rocky Mountain states to weaken environmental regulation over federally owned land. In Europe, on the other hand, newly created “Green” parties joined the spectrum of mainstream political groups. The most successful Green movement, in West Germany, first captured seats in the West German legislature in 1983.
As support at the nation-state level became more erratic, the environmental movement framed its cause as transnational. Environmentalists noted that their issues—ranging from decreasing pollution to protecting endangered biological species—transcended national boundaries. The first Earth Day celebration in 1970 (an event now held annually in some 140 nations, on April 22) defined the areas of concern. The next year witnessed the founding of a new international environmental organization, Greenpeace, which now includes more than 2.5 million members worldwide. Greenpeace extended its protests to the testing of nuclear weapons in the oceans, especially by France. In 1985, French intelligence blew up a Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand. The assault drew international condemnation, and only recently has it come to light that French president François Mitterrand personally authorized the action.
Just as an array of international organizations promoted environmentalist agendas, others supported a variety of humanitarian causes. Apart from environmentalism, these “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) have focused on five principal causes: human relief, cultural exchange, peace and disarmament, developmental assistance, and human rights.
Senior among these NGOs is the International Red Cross, founded in 1864 (and since 1986 renamed the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, to include Islamic national members). The organization received Nobel Peace Prizes in 1917, 1944, and 1963. The Red Cross has served the needs of the wounded and displaced in wartime, and brings food, clothing, medical care, and expert advisors to victims of natural disasters. The French organization Médecins sans Frontières (“Doctors without Boundaries”) has focused on the medical needs of impoverished peoples or communities in crisis. CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), meanwhile, has tended to the needs of poor children worldwide.
Other NGOs have addressed more controversial matters. Amnesty International has pursued the cause of identifying prisoners of conscience (those jailed for criticism of government policies) and organizing international support for their release. Its annual release of a human rights report shone the spotlight on repressive regimes, from the Soviet Union in the 1970s to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Myanmar today. Amnesty International’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 symbolized the dramatic growth of NGO influence after 1970. There were 2,795 NGOs in 1972; by 1984, that number had increased to 12,686. Like Amnesty International, many of these new groups tackled contentious issues. The World Wildlife Federation, for instance, took on Japan, the Soviet Union, and NATO member Norway in its “Save the Whales” campaign, launched in 1972.
Even the Olympic Games have demonstrated the impact of NGOs. In 1981, the first NGO to promote the rights of disabled people, Disabled Persons International, was founded. Within four years, it included members from over 100 countries, and persuaded Olympics officials to integrate disabled athletes into the Games. The 1984 Paralympics attracted 1,800 athletes from more than 50 countries. Four years later, the International Olympic Committee scheduled the Paralympics simultaneously with the winter and summer games. At the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, disabled athletes from a record 136 nations competed in 26 different sporting events.
Many UN agencies and programs serve purposes similar to those of the NGOs. Tasks addressed by the international body include the control and prevention of disease (the World Health Organization, or WHO); the increase and distribution of food supplies (the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO); the welfare of children (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF); the facilitation of world trade (the World Trade Organization, or WTO); and the promotion of knowledge (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO). Meanwhile, the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees has played an increasingly important role in addressing the human costs of disease, war, starvation, and political repression.
The 1970s: international relations and the global economy
During the 1970s, in part due to the pragmatic foreign policy of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), Cold War tensions eased somewhat. Nixon ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which had begun to exact an intolerable domestic price, effectively consigning that state to a communist regime. At the same time, he established a new relationship with another one, Maoist China, even as it emerged from the paroxysms of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Elsewhere in Asia, the economy boomed in capitalist South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong (called the Four Tigers in recognition of their success) and, especially, Japan (whose intense business climate led one critical observer to name it “Japan Inc.”). Europe, in contrast, experienced a contraction that ended the postwar economic miracle.