Frequent A-com poster Mark Bennett has left a string of spiteful, inaccurate and misleading commentary on many, many worthwhile books. His one star says "I hate it," according to A-com review criteria. This is my corrective to some points in his review of Mark Kurlansky's highly informative 1968.
MB says: "This book is less a history of 1968 and more a long-form opinion piece on any number of topics. Its (sic) not really a complete history. Its often written from a one-sided political perspective of `us vs. them'."
INSTEAD, I FOUND that 1968 is an ambitious chronological global journalistic history of the protests, riots, societal changes in the US, Europe, Mexico and a some other areas as well. It also chronicles the attitudes of the opponents of the protests, like DeGaulle, Diaz Ordaz, the Russian Politburo, Mayor Richard Daley, etc. While Kurlansky writes from an informed point of view, he strives to be fair in his narrative history of one year. Doubt me? Go to the book icon and "search inside this book," and start reading the first chapter. Contra MB, 1968 is no mere one-sided account. Indeed, MB seems angry at the subject itself, and that the year 1968 actually happened -- not good presumptions for a fair review of an otherwise highly and widely regarded book.
MB says: "There are also some just plain strange moments such as the idea that Lindsay and Rockefeller were the heart of the republican party."
INSTEAD, I FOUND on pp. 264-65, a clear explanation of how the once ascendant Rockefeller lost out to Nixon because the former abandoned the presidential race, and so Republican convention delegates were committed to Nixon because they were already secured in the primary elections.
As for NYC Mayor John Lindsay, Kurlansky reminds us that the rightward shift of the Republican Party ruled him out as VP for Nixon. Maryland's Spiro Agnew was selected instead to bolster Nixon's Southern Strategy to capture the votes of conservative segregationists, i.e racists.
Nowhere does Kurlansky say these two men were the "heart" of the Republican Party in 1968. He does correctly observe that this was the last election in which the Republican Party considered Republican liberals on the ticket, but rejected them ever since, purging them from the party.
MB says: "There is the ASIDE where he tries to make corrupt Lyndon Johnson crony Abe Fortas into a victim of a republican conspiracy to take over the supreme court."
INSTEAD, I FOUND on pp. 357 - 59, a thoroughgoing analysis of the context of the Fortas "scandal," not an ASIDE, as MB would have it. Kurlansky only cites the historical record when he says Fortas's nomination for Chief Justice was opposed by a coalition of right wing Republicans and Southern Democrats (indignant segregationists like Strom Thurmond soon to become Republicans) angry about "liberal" SC legal rulings. Sens. Thurmond and Mississippi segregationist John Stennis complained of court overreach into "states rights," a code term used to bolster Jim Crow laws and race-restrictive covenants, as well as attacking the court's recent ruling on obscenity and pornography. In Rick Perlstein's authoritative NIXONLAND, pp. 285-89, the author documents the Thurmond-orchestrated conspiracy. This pressure on Fortas was the first of its kind, and established a precedent for the right wing to gain control of the Supreme Court. Moreover, Fortas - who succumbed to the pressure and resigned -was no more of a crony to Lyndon Johnson than US Attorney General Ed Meese was to his friend Ronald Reagan, and Fortas DID have a solid judicial record.
MB says: "And there is the point in the book where he explains that the entire 1968 "generation" saw Hiroshima and Auschwitz as essentially the same thing."
INSTEAD, I FOUND this remark nowhere in the book, & it is not in the index. Even if some (the ENTIRE 1968 generation?) may have said it, MB's hyperbolic use instantly discredits the remark. Kurlansky certainly doesn't believe it. I did find, however, this indisputable fact in the prologue: the US "dropped more non-nuclear bombs on [Vietnam's] small territory than had been dropped on all of Asia and Europe in WWII," p. XVIII. This realization appalled attentive Americans and helped turn most of the US against the war.
MB says: "He also explains that Czechoslovakia democratically voted in 1946 to become a communist dictatorship."
INSTEAD, I FOUND that this is accurate, via Wikipedia, "In the May 1946 election, the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) won most of the popular vote in the Czech part of the bi-ethnic country (40.17%), and the more or less anti-Communist Democratic Party won in Slovakia (62%). [note: a COALITION of 3 socialist parties predominated in CZ the post WWII years]. In sum, however, the KSČ won a plurality of 38 percent of the vote at countrywide level [with additional socialist support coming from the 2 other parties.]. The Communist leader Klement Gottwald became prime minister."
MB says: "He talks later about how many Germans loved East Germany and moved there in the 1960s from the west. He talks about the migration as being unreported."
INSTEAD, I FOUND: Citing the NYT, 3/21/68, as his source, Kurlansky never uses the word "love." Rather he describes human traffic going both ways in 1968, and 20,000 West Germans (including the movie actor Wolfgang Kieling), going east as "less talked about" p. 147. That's a far cry from MB's notion of "un-reported."
MB says: " He generally buys into the idea that the states of eastern europe were somehow capable of reform."
INSTEAD, I FOUND: that he never states this. Rather he lays out a history of the stirrings of human and economic rights and democratic yearnings in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the point of 1968's narrative. In Chapter 7, "A Polish Categorical Imperative," the origins of the Polish student demonstrations in 1968 are chronicled --- and documented in the footnotes, sourced to original participants and other Polish authorities. Importantly, the Catholic Church lent its support to the students (p. 126), and these were the seeds that grew into the successful Solidarity Movement of the 1980s, as Kurlansky claims in the books closing chapters.
In addition, the most compelling part of 1968 is Kurlansky's deeply contexted treatment of Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, Chapters 2, 5, 13 and 17, and its implications 21 years later for the Velvet Revolution in 1989, democracy, and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.
Thus MB's narrow view of "reform" in 1968, crushed in the short term, is better understood as the continuous discontent that heralded the popular revolutions (Kurlansky's point, pp. 377-78, citing Gorbachov and others) that would sweep through the old East Bloc and into the Soviet Union itself, collapsing the stagnant communist regimes.
MB says: "And then there is the middle east. He creates a history out of whole cloth. Israel in 1968 was struggling to give back all the lands occupied in 1967. Every good person in the world outside of Israel thougth that Israel should keep the land which shows how moderate the Israelis were. He tells us that Israelis (not the government of Israel) started creating settlements in the occupied territories in 1968 because individual Israelis were giving up on peace."
INSTEAD, I FOUND: While initially there were those who thought Israel should keep the land it won (and Kurlansky reports this, too -contra MB), this was not "every good person," and the numbers supporting annexation soon began to fall. Here's one reason why: I cite Wikipedia on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories: "Just after the Six Day War, in 1967, Theodor Meron, legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry stated in a legal opinion to the Prime Minister:" "My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention." Nevertheless, settlements began to be built.
Kurlansky's summary remarks about post-War Israeli settlement motivations on p. 257, though generally true, should have gone further. While the government was trying to get guaranteed peace for land return, as he says, it actually was ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups (NOT "individual Israelis," per MB) who saw the Israeli victory as a literal godsend - not the secular govt. GROUPS of conservative Jews initiated the post-war occupation because they believed it was religiously justified - IN ADDITION to giving up on peace with the rise of Palestinian resistance. Further, under the Allon Plan, a proposal drawn up shortly after the 1967 war under which Israel would retain that section of the West Bank which would allow it to maintain defensible borders, readers need to be aware that the LABOR GOVERNMENT eventually created some 21 settlements along the Jordan Valley and Eastern slopes of Samaria during that period.....a corrective to MB and clarification of Kurlansky's accurate conclusions (This is from the Palestine Facts site). Indeed, Kurlansky cites Ammon Rubenstein's prophetic warning in the daily Ha' Aretz about settling in military occupied territory: "Israelis will have to learn the art of living in an indefinite state on non-peace." Concluding, Kurlansky's summary of the "middle east" is common knowledge, not MB's false accusation that 1968 is "history out of whole cloth."
MB says: "He holds Colin Powell personally responsible for covering up the My Lai massacre."
INSTEAD, I FOUND: Kurlansky (p. 373) wrote: "...Major Colin Powell [deputy operations officer] was asked to write a response" to a report that a massacre occurred in March, 1968. The massacre of at least 347 infants, children, women and the elderly (lasting 4 hours) came to light when a soldier's report of the incident - Tom Glen - made its way to the Americal Division HQ by Fall of the same year. This letter broke the cover-up, and an investigation commenced in fits and starts. Powell was assigned to investigate Glen's letter.
Kurlansky: "Without interviewing Glen, he [Powell] wrote that there was nothing to the accusations - they were simply unfounded rumors." Nevertheless, another infantryman, Ron Ridenhour, personally investigated the massacre reports upon his return to the US, and forwarded eyewitness accounts to the Army IG. Investigations at this level bypassed Powell's whitewash, and in September 1969, Lt. Calley was charged for his role in the massacre and later convicted. Kurlansky cites Newsweek, Sept. 11, 1995, where Powell's role in the cover-up was first revealed 23 years later.
In another news account of Powell's role in the cover-up, Robert Parry & Norman Solomon, Consortiumnews.com, say Powell "reported back exactly what his superiors wanted to hear," citing his 1968 report: "In direct refutation of this [Glen's] portrayal," Powell concluded, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Sorry, MB, Colin Powell (to his discredit) did have a role in the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, and Kurlansky is correct.
MB says: There are long asides into issues that have nothing to do 1968 like Cuban-American relations in the early 1960s. I mean how is it possible to take seriously the idea that "the bay of pigs was one of the defining moments in a new generation's cynicism about liberals".
INSTEAD, I FOUND: that the best history is done by providing prologue or context. The worst is done by only looking at the present and in isolation from the larger picture. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, planned under a liberal president, was a prologue to his successor's arrogant and costly intervention in Vietnam - that's why Kurlansky discusses the BOP. Let's remember, Lyndon Johnson obtained signature liberal legislation via the Civil Rights Act AND laid the groundwork for the reforms of The Great Society, while ESCALATING an unwinnable war overseas. With Johnson and liberalism's legacy in tatters in 1968, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were swept into office while reactionaries voted for segregationist George Wallace and Gen. Curtis "nuclear first strike" LeMay (ret). The latter pair carried 5 states and won 46 electoral votes! Talk about an anti-liberal backlash!
In conclusion, Mark Kurlansky's 1968 is as fine a general introduction to that tumultuous year as you will find. It reads easily and is full of incidental but relevant surprises that leaven his lively narrative. Further, readers seeking deeper knowledge of 1968 have a rich bibliography from which to pursue further studies. Kurlansky is one of our best all-around journalists and maintains a website where he occasionally takes readers' questions.