Revolution in the 1960s

A Review of Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente
by Jeremi Suri

Author Biography

Jeremi Suri grew up in New York in the 1970s and 1980s as a politically savvy young man. Suri received his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Stanford University in 1994, his Masters Degree in History, specifically Cold War politics, from Ohio University in 1996 and his Ph.D. in History at Yale University in 2001. Today, Suri is an author and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Jeremi Suri’s Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente describes the handling of nuclear warfare and domestic chaos while also highlighting the beginnings of friendly relations among superpower nations and the end of the Cold War. In his history, Suri emphasizes the importance of education in fostering a democratic and capitalist society and the Americanization of a communist society. While there are many factors contributing to the thawing of the Cold War, Suri points out key aspects that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s that led to the fall of communism and the victory of the United States over the Soviet Union.

World War II gave the world a very threatening weapon—the atomic bomb, described in detail in Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. The strategy of nuclear warfare was simple: whoever strikes first with enough force to prevent a massive retaliation, a devastating strike back, wins. Though elementary in strategy for the caliber of nuclear weapons, this missile gap policy kept the United States and the Soviet Union as well as other nations in peace during the war. While army sizes dropped after World War II, nuclear artillery amount greatly increased, for “with the atomic bomb, the number of troops on each side makes practically no difference to the alignment of real power and the outcome of a war, the more troops on a side, the more bomb fodder."1 In the age of nuclear power, the need for an atomic bomb was far greater than the need for a million-man army. After both superpowers possessed enough nuclear arms to destroy each other and the world, the nuclear weapon became useless in purpose. As a consequence of each nation’s potential destructive power, “the most powerful states after World War II quickly lost the will to use armed conflict against each other."2 Even through the tension and friction between superpowers over ideology as well as foreign policy, neither nation wanted to start an “unwanted nuclear war” and a possible apocalypse.3 As weapons grew too destructive and threats grew too great for governments and people to handle, powerful nations found no purpose in using nuclear arms to settle conflict and instead turned to negotiation, compromise and “change through reconciliation."4 This reluctant willingness to cooperate with opposing forces was the basis of détente in the 1960s.

After the death of Stalin, however, the Soviet Union underwent democratization. Nikita Khrushchev, a communist but hardly as devoted as Stalin, dealt with dissidents more humanely than Stalin, giving them an inch of breathing room to manifest. Though not much, this light tolerance allowed the beginnings of a social revolution. The publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich gave international audiences a first glimpse of life within the Soviet bloc. Additionally, the expansion of higher education didn’t help the Soviet cause. With student enrollment in higher education at a high all around the world, the new levels of education created an “international youth culture more integrated across gender and more politically aware than” ever before, a generation far more likely to disapprove of authority.5 In Russia, more and more Soviet students began questioning the Soviet regime; education had “transform[ed] students into dissidents” and a whole generation around the world into rebels.6 In the United States, issues over race, poverty and Vietnam began taking shape; citizens began polarizing into active radicals and fastidious conservatives. Through education, students would become a major source of social unrest in the next decade of American politics.

In the midst of fighting communism abroad, students and citizens of the United States grew angry at their government’s dealings with Asia; Chapters 4 and 5 analyze the American fought war in Vietnam and its social consequences in the United States. Though many hardcore conservatives preferred that the United States contain the spread of communism in the world, the overwhelming trend of far-left liberalism during the decade led to widespread protest and riots against the United States’ long stay in Vietnam; “the world surely would have become a less democratic place if the United States had not intervened directly” in Vietnam, for the Vietnam War gave students and protesters something to complain about.7 America’s international problems laid the groundwork for its domestic problems. Facing a “culture of poverty” and a rising race equality rebellion on the home front, Lyndon B. Johnson, President from 1963-1968, designed his own plan for a greater, improved America and world: the Great Society.8 A social improvement program, the Great Society paralleled FDR’s New Deal in purpose and ideology but not in execution; this “international New Deal” seemed just and philanthropic to far-right Conservatives—it sponsored “quality education, decent employment, and a functioning economy to those most in need” around the world—but imperialist and jingoistic in the eyes of the far-left liberals—it violated the United States’ stance on self-determination and, since it supported the Vietnam War, spread violence and hate around the world.9 Starting in Berkeley, protests spread throughout the United States and world in a “global ‘emancipatory struggle [for] self-determination."10 As open dissent spread, “University students [had become] the main enemies of order” in developed countries.11 Just as more education fostered democratic values, the public disapproval of millions around the world also furthered democratic principles in the United States and around the world.

The last chapter analyzes the United States’ and other nations’ abilities to cooperate through turbulent domestic protest. Since many of the protests were sparked by international policies, nations began changing their stone-cold anti-communist or anti-capitalist viewpoints and took a new, more compromising approach to international affairs. Anti-Soviet relations turned into a “language of ‘convergence’”; as Nixon stated: “after a period of confrontation, [aggressive Soviet-American relations,] we are entering an era of negotiation."12 The battle for influence in the Third World led to domestic violence, so the United States gave up its 1950s hate of the communist monolith and instead focused on working with the Soviets—after 1968, the Domino Theory no longer scared Americans or politicians. The United States’ change through reconciliation policy allowed for improved relations with both the Soviet Union and China. Military restrictions was a first step in tearing down the iron curtain that split Europe as well as the world; an open door China was the beginning of China’s democratization and prominence as a world power. Détente offered the United States and the world temporary peace as well as a globalization of ideology. Suddenly, people began to think in global terms as opposed to just nationally or locally.

Jeremi Suri stresses the effect of education on the turbulent sixties in promoting protest and more importantly democracy. Education, exemplified in dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ayn Rand’s Anthem, proved an important stepping stone for détente and democracy, as governments, both communist and capitalist, promoted the expansion of higher education. This was a fatal step for communist countries, once they gave their students a mind of their own, taught them to think, they created a generation of rebels and protesters. For capitalist countries in the sixties, the violent outcome of higher education covered up the more democratic side of the protests; the violent sides of democracy effectively scared the world into cooperation and détente. In an era of nuclear threats and polar beliefs, however, the government practically gave their citizens cause to complain about.

Throughout his novel, Jeremi Suri takes the side of the 1960s liberal. Clearly, he objected to the Vietnam War and even calls the United States “imperialists” numerous times throughout the book. For a majority of the novel, however, Suri takes the stance of a modern college professor, looking at the events of the 1960s objectively. Although against the United States’ enduring participation in Indochina, Suri accepts it as inevitable—“if not in Indochina, the United States […] would have fought a Vietnam War somewhere else.”13 In early-1960s American politics, the spread of communism in the world was too threatening to the “American way of life” for any president to step up and start a mini-war in the face of Nuclear War. Suri believes if not a war in Vietnam, then one in Eastern or Western Europe, or even Cuba. Suri also takes on the shoes of a modern college professor when he connects 1950s-1960s fear of communism with the current fear of terrorism. After 9/11, President Bush’s responses to terrorism mirror those of presidents of the late sixties and détente; he strove for “stability at the cost of liberty.”14 In order to protect the people from communism or terrorism, the government violated its founding principles and destroyed liberties granted to man in the Constitution. Suri’s argument reflects the modern era in which he lives.

The Harvard University Press summarizes this book’s purpose in one sentence: “to provide a global perspective of the 1960s and the origins of détente”. While focusing mainly on United States and Soviet relations in the era of the sixties, Suri explains the international perspective of revolt and détente. Calling Suri’s argument “compelling” and “intriguing”, the reviewer does point out a flaw in Suri’s novel. When Suri explains the Vietnam War, he writes in American terms and “the lack of an international perspective […] appears glaringly obvious”. Nowhere in the book does Suri consider the viewpoints of other nations on Vietnam.15 H-Net Reviews calls Power and Protest “six interrelated essays” describing the “essential preconditions of the global upheavals in the late 1960s […] and the emergence of consequences of détente. While Suri includes perspectives of many European countries and China in his book, Brad Sampson of Idaho State University believes that Suri “obscures the truly global scope of protest” by leaving out much of the Third World and Japan. The exclusion of these countries takes away from the international effect of this book. Sampson also believes that Suri’s perspective is too narrowly focused on the Cold War and fails to consider other possible explanations for social disruption in the decade. Finally, Suri also understates the importance of money in the actions of Strong Nations in the decade of the 1960s. These defects, however, don’t take away from the overall strong effect of Suri’s novel.16 Easy to read, never boring and always informative, Suri’s novel, although not as international as it should be, powerfully explains the global phenomenon of protest in the turbulent sixties. One of the strongest selling points of this book is that it is very readable, making learning from this non-fiction paperback almost fun and entertaining. Suri’s intellectual take on the 1960s also provides a strong voice in his writing. A weak point of his novel, however, is the incessant citing of minute figures in history: although some are detrimental to Suri’s argument, many are simply listed in the text, requiring total ignorance of their names or a lot of outside research to understand the text by the reader. Otherwise, Suri’s book effectively critiques a very unstable and chaotic era in world history.

American politics in the 1960s took a dramatic turn right. The highly liberal and democratic movements and protests in the decade scared governments into a backlash of conservatism. Dissident, rebellious and violent, the revolts of the far-left American public took international as well as social matters into their own hands. The chaos that erupted from these protests forced the government to give in to the masses of Americans wanting an end to War in Vietnam and Imperialist policy and cooperate with other nations around the world in détente. Where before, the containment of communism and nuclear weaponry shrouded American foreign policy, after 1968, the order and peace of the world became the foremost priority of politicians. Today, the “shared danger” against the threat of terrorism has its origin in the globalization of world politics.17 Every nation acts in reference to other nations.

The intense liberalism of the 1960s parallels today’s protests against the War on Iraq, terrorism and immigration. The fear of communism and the consequent protests of American involvement in Vietnam in the fifties, sixties and seventies closely mirrors today’s fear of terrorism and American involvement in the Middle East. Though not as widespread, the protests against the Iraqi War resemble those against the Vietnam War—pro-war conservatives justify the war as a prevention of future terrorism and anti-war liberals accuse the United States of imperialism; the communism that once struck fear into Americans’ hearts evolved into terrorism, and the Civil Rights Movement for blacks in the 1960s is revived in the Immigration Movement of 2006. The change of American politics from liberal to conservative in the 60s is reversed in the 21st century, as conservative actions against terrorism are overshadowed by domestic discontent with George W. Bush. Where attempts to stifle the spread of communism turned into attempts to work with the communists, a War on Terror that slowly turns into negotiation and compromise in the 21st century won’t be surprising.

After World War II, the world underwent a revolution. Never before had so many people been in danger of annihilation through massive weaponry, yet not one bullet was fired between the superpowers of the Cold War. Enrollment in higher education throughout the world taught students to think for themselves and, in the 1960s, against their established authorities. The large-scale protests of 1968 were the final stand for liberalism for the next two decades as, after domestic violence and chaos, governments turned to détente, negotiation and compromise “regardless of ideology” and conservatism.18 For the next twenty years, the United States would take a more global and conservative approach to foreign policy.

review by Steven Chung

  1. Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 37.
  2. Suri, Jeremi 7.
  3. Suri, Jeremi 3.
  4. Suri, Jeremi 29.
  5. Suri, Jeremi 93.
  6. Suri, Jeremi 93.
  7. Suri, Jeremi 132.
  8. Suri, Jeremi 98.
  9. Suri, Jeremi 147.
  10. Suri, Jeremi 180.
  11. Suri, Jeremi 181.
  12. Suri, Jeremi 233.
  13. Suri, Jeremi 137.
  14. Suri, Jeremi 264. The History Cooperative. Book Review. Journal of World History, 17, 1
  15. H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences
  16. Suri, Jeremi 262.
  17. Suri, Jeremi 26.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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