History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Social Revolution

Politics click here for audio

The political context is important for understanding the culture of the era. Map of Indochina showing North and South Vietnam, DMZ between, Laos, CambodiaIn 1965, the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam in response to the weakness of the South Vietnamese government. Vietnam, like Korea, had been divided into a communist north and a capitalist south. But there were important differences. Unlike South Korea, South Vietnam had a separate culture, based primarily on Buddhism. Also unlike Korea, Vietnam had been a colony of the French, who wanted it back after World War II. This led to a nationalist rebellion against the French, the Indochinese War, which lasted until 1954 when France (mostly using American money) had lost. The division had taken place in the aftermath of this war, at the Geneva Accords, where the nation was temporarily divided between the south, ruled by Catholic aristocrat Ngo Dinh Diem, and the north. The north was ruled by Ho Chi Minh, communist hero of nationalism against the Japanese and French. Elections were promised for 1956, but were nixed by the U.S. and Diem when they realized Ho Chi Minh's popularity would assure a communist victory. The U.S. tried to prop up Diem's government

Monk immolating himself
Quang Duc's self-immolation protesting Diem's religious persecutions

with money and thousands of "advisors", but by 1965 his regime was failing.

American troops arriving in South Vietnam discovered that they were poorly organized compared to the communist government in the north, which was continuously supplying communist Viet Cong in the south by going around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) through Laos and Cambodia. They also discovered that many in the south didn't want the U.S. there, including Buddhist monks who burned themselves alive in protest against either Diem's government or the American presence. (In 2001, a monk did the same protesting commmunist oppression.) In addition, troops were unprepared for the guerilla warfare conducted by the communist Vietnamese, who could rely on public support. In 1968, a coordinated (and televised) Viet Cong offensive against the U.S. caused the American government to lose public support for the war. (There have since been no freely televised American military actions.)

CoFrench Poster: hand writing, conjugating the verb to participate, folllowed by ils profitent (they profit)mbining U.S. interference in Vietnam, undertaken soley to prevent the spread of communism, with repressive governments led to social revolt. In the United States, civil rights groups, radicals, and students came out against the war. But Paris was the heart of social protest, under the restrictiveness of Charles DeGaulle's governmeFrench poster Pouvoir Populaire (Public Strength)nt. DeGaulle had been commander of the Free French in World War II, and yet young people marched with posters calling him a fascist.

An entire site of European media (in English, French, German and Spanish) sorry, site removed is a good place to research the Revolutions of 1968.

One reason for all the action was the sheer number of young people, who had been born in the "baby boom" following the Second World War. Historically (here's a theme), whenever young people dominate the demographics, change moves at an increased rate. That was certainly true of the 1960s and 1970s.

photo of crowds reaching up to tank soldiers
Czechs appeal to the Soviet tank soldiers

1968 also saw events called Prague Spring, in Czechoslovakia. Political leader Alexander Dubçek believed in "communism with a human face". His government instituted freedom of speech, and autonomy for Slovaks. Limited capitalism was permitted, and ties with the Soviets were loosened. The Soviets and governments of Eastern Europe, fearing reforms would spread, stormed Prague and installed a strict communist regime, putting Dubçek in jail. This indeed killed the hopes of many wanting democratic reforms in eastern Europe.

In 1975, the last U.S. troops evacuated Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, as it fell to the communists. At the same time, the U.S. and Europe were experiencing massive inflation of prices. This was caused by an oil crisis in the Middle East, begun by American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Unemployment was rampant, and there was little money to invest in infrastructure. The result was a political move toward the right, best represented by President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain in the early 1980s. In contrast to the social program funding of the 1970s, conservative governments cut social services and promised economic recovery. Calls for social reform were repressed or ignored during this crisis, and the era of Social Revolution ended.

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