What Year Was Most Important?

Was it 1492 or 1968? 1066 or 1848?

We've had a spate of bestsellers about the events of a single year, and two new titles are on their way:

1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan, will be published in June. Kaplan (who writes the War Stories column about the military for Slate, covers jazz for Stereophile magazine, and was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Boston Globe) argues that 1959 marked the birth of "the world as we now know it."

1959, he writes, "was the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life . . . when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled," including the advent of:
--the microchip and the birth control pill
--the first spacecraft and the start of the jet age
--the first American casualties in Vietnam and the first official effort to curb racism
--the shattering of old forms in music, art and literature

Ah, but was it as big a year as 1973?

In Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year, which also is due out in June, the British historian Sir Alistair Horne points out that in that year
--the United States agreed to end the Vietnam War
--detente began with the Soviet Union
--the Watergate scandal unhinged American politics
--the surprise Yom Kippur war rocked the Mideast
--Pinochet overthrew Allende in Chile
--and one man had a role in all these events: Henry Kissinger. It was also the year he became secretary of state and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, both Kaplan and Horne are latecomers to the "big year" game. Gavin Menzies hedged his bets by staking claims on two years, 1421 and 1434, both because of events involving China.

Mark Kurlansky put his marker on 1968 in his 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. David Marannis went for Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, which really made a case for the importance of 1960 as much as for the drama of those Games. David McCullough focused on 1776, though in fact his book was more about the military events of that year than about its world-historical import, as Gordon Wood noted in a review for Book World. When Charles Mann pinpointed 1491, he was writing not so much about that year as about the many millenia before European contact with Native Americans. And in his book 1948, Israeli historian Benny Morris shattered the "myths on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide," according to our reviewer, Glenn Frankel.

What single year would you single out? Or what year would you most want to read about?

--Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  March 27, 2009; 11:43 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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1453: The end of the Hundred Years War in the West and the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in the East.

The historian J.M. Roberts, with a poetic bent, characterizes the fall of Constantinople as "the East answering back for the sacking of Troy."

Here is J.M. Roberts in his "The Illustrated History of the World" on the end:

"The last attack began early in April 1453. After nearly two months, on the evening of 28 May, Roman Catholics and Orthodox alike gathered in St Sophia and the fiction of the religious reunion was given its last parade. The emperor Constantine XI, eightieth in succession since his namesake, the great first Constantine, took communion, and then went out to die worthily, fighting. Soon afterwards, it was all over. Mehmet entered the city, went straight to St Sophia and there set up a triumphant throne. The church which had been the heart of Orthodoxy was made a mosque."

I've always liked the irony that the great 1000-year empire did last 987 years longer than Hitler's "1000-year" Third Reich.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | March 30, 2009 10:37 AM

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