Guest lecturer argues events in 1979 still impacts world today

Adam Hamze

Although many people might think the most crucial moments in the 20th century would include World War II, the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War, journalist Christian Caryl said the current state of the world was most affected by events in 1979.

Caryl, who is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, gave a lecture hosted by the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University on Wednesday. Caryl said there were five moments in 1979 that caused it to be a formative year: the election of Pope John Paul II, the rise of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the economic revolution in China led by Deng Xioaping, Iran’s shift into theocracy under Ruhollah Khomeini, and Margaret Thatcher being elected as the British prime minister. 

 According to Caryl, author of “Strange Rebels: Why We Still Live in the Shadow of 1979,” these events were closely correlated and, together, contributed to paradigm shifts across the world. He said the Pope’s involvement in Poland and the Islamic Revolutions in Afghanistan and Iran contributed to the fall of communism, while the economic shift to free-market capitalism in China and Great Britain challenged socialist systems.

“The reason we need to pay attention to this year is not just because of the transformations, but I believe we need to because it transformed the world far more than we usually give it credit for,” Caryl said.

Caryl believes the impact the events of 1979 had on politics and economics today is overlooked because of the complexity of the events. He said it is much easier to analyze concrete events such as WWII, and the reason 1979 contained a multitude of historical events is because the world is constantly going through cycles.

“There are cycles in history … periodic outburst of fervor, then reaction, then religious revivals,” Caryl said. “Not many people noticed the shifting of attitudes until they had already happened.”

Jacqueline Chandler, programs manager at the Clements Center, said the aim of the department is to help students learn from history and become more effective leaders.

“Bringing in historians from all sorts of backgrounds is really important to bring that message home,” Chandler said. “Sometimes people tend to focus on one event or signature thing [in history] and will miss the whole picture.”

Government junior Andy Trimble, who attended the lecture, said if the general public had a better grasp on the history of regions engulfed in conflict, they would have a better understanding of the context of the situations.

“If [people] know what happened in the past and could make accurate links, their view of history would be much more linear, instead of just chopped up in these big moments,” Trimble said. “This way, people would have more informed opinions and be less ignorant about certain topics.”