Jeremi Suri – Power and Protest Review

Jeremi Suri is very adept and skillful historian, and in this book, he examines the 1960s and the protests of 1968 in a very unique way.  He argues that in the early 1960s global leaders (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Khrushchev, de Gaulle, Mao) promised economic and social progress to a very young population, however, these leaders’ failures to keep their promises led to the protest movements that rocked France, West Germany, Britain, Mexico, Poland, Czechoslovakia, China, and the United States, and that these domestic disruptions led to the era of detente in the early 1970s.

To understand how the protests of the 1960s resulted in detente, first Suri summarizes the first decade of the Cold War examining the nuclear brinkmanship of the USA and USSR.  In the first chapter, Eisenhower comes across somewhat dovish believing more in nuclear armament rather than large expensive ground forces, furthermore, Eisenhower was reluctant to increase the US stockpile until the Soviet launch of Sputnik.  Though he remained confident in USA’s capabilities he agreed to increase weapon stockpiles to appease both hawks and NATO.  Kennedy, in a similar vein, also believed in nuclear strength rather than a large standing army, however, Kennedy also wanted to combine nuclear power with culture.  Through the use of cultural exchanges like the Peace Corp, Kennedy believed other nations would become friendly and identify with the United States.  Consequently, the realities of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis) forced Kennedy into a more conservative posture.  Kennedy’s Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, first denounced Stalin and many of the actions carried out by his regime and promised a purer form of communism yet like Kennedy, Khrushchev found it easier to promise than to follow-through.  The failure to follow through with these promises would eventually lead to disillusionment among the youth.

The second chapter also emphasizes leadership by examining what Suri characterizes as the charismatic leadership of Charles de Gaulle and Mao Zedong.  For Suri, de Gaulle attempts to restore the grandeur and radiance of France  by creating a third way between the US and Soviet Union. This third way included the growth of nuclear technology, greater economic cooperation with West Germany, and increased diplomatic relations with China.  While I will agree that de Gaulle was a unique and charismatic leader, I do not believe that his actions and plans to restore French grander directly resulted in the May protests of 1968.  It appears that the riots were in response to class and ethnic issues rather than a protest against the governments failure to to keep idealist promises.  Mao, on the other hand, utilized populace anger to remove his political enemies under the guise of revisionism.  The failure of the Great Leap Forward resulted in domestic unrest and anger towards the Chinese leadership.  In order to harness this anger and preserve himself, Mao argued that the failure was the result of class enemies located in government positions.  He then urged the population to remove these enemies in a cultural revolution.

Chapter three is a central piece of the puzzle and explores the language and discourse shared by the youth of 1968 by looking at the writings of men like Marcuse, Che, Mao, Buckley, Galbraith, and Solzhenitsyn .  By examining the discourse, Suri demonstrates that the youth, especially of the West were reading and espousing the same types of ideas – ideas that criticized the status quo of Western government. The youth were tired of domestic stagnation and the hypocrisy of their governments in foreign affairs, and, through these authors, they found a language to voice their anger.    West German youth noted their government contained many people who had been Nazis and came to believe that they still had a fascist government.  This would eventually lead to urban terrorism in Germany.  In the Soviet Union, there was a minor thaw when the writings of Solzhenitsyn were released to reveal the despotic nature of Stalinism and the gulag system.  Ultimately, what this chapter is trying tell us is that their was enormous educated postwar generation who believed in the idealistic and democratic ideas promoted by their governments (or the USSRs case cared about reforming communism), but as the Cold War, Vietnam, and nuclear proliferation continued, they became disillusioned.

Chapter four examines the failure of liberal empires abroad by exploring Vietnam especially the failure of both Kennedy and Johnson administrations implement modernization schemes.  The failure of these plans, such as the strategic hamlets initiative, led to an increased military presence in the Vietnam which would ultimately evolve in a major war.  To those students at home, the war revealed the hypocrisy of their governments discourse – they espoused democratic and idealistic visions of the future while fighting wars and supporting authoritarian dictators in third world countries.  The failure of two progressive presidents in Vietnam fueled the protest movements of 1968 in the West and ultimately led to the election of Nixon.

Chapter five is Suri’s actual recount of the 1968 protests and probably his weakest chapter.  Suri briefly recounts the protests throughout globe touching on Berkley, DC, (though skipping Chicago and the DNC), Berlin, Paris, Prague, and Wuhan.  By looking at each of these protests individually, the author fails to show how they are connected and why we should view 1968 as global event.  I believe that these connections existed especially in the West where there resided a similar discontent among the youth yet Suri ch0oses not to reveal these connections.  Yes, he shows that their existed a similar discourse in chapter three, but he does not utilize primary source evidence to show stronger connections between the youth, furthermore, he does not even discuss the Vietnam Congress in Berlin – an event hosted by the Germans but included students from most Western nations.  The failure to connect the protest movements, though they existed, weakens his argument.   Moreover, it appears that the protests in Prague and China were not really connected to the movements in the West.  The Prague Spring appears to be a more top down movement whereby the instillation of Dubcek and his reformed minded ideas allowed for a flourishing of culture.  Finally, the Cultural revolution of China resulted when Mao hijacked a movement and used it to remove his enemies from positions of power, but when this movement proved more radical than he anticipated  Mao sent in the army to reestablish order.

The final chapter recounts the rise of detente in the 1970s mostly focusing on Nixon and Kissinger.  Here Suri discusses the rise of Ostpolitik and how Nixon’s visit to China reshaped the international system by pitting China and the Soviet Union against one another for US favor.  The ultimate goal of this chapter is demonstrate that international leaders desired a stable international arena so they could focus on quelling domestic anger, but that this resulted in much more secretive governments that worked behind veils of secrecy.  In this chapter, Suri successfully shows that 1968 led to a different international system – one based on speed and secrecy to prevent the domestic spheres involvement.  One key aspect that I think is missing in this chapter (though it may due to the fact he ends the book on the Nixon administration) is that 1975 Helsinki agreements which legitimized Cold War states like East Germany but also planted the seeds for 1989 by making human rights an inviolable right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s