Recently, a writer in The New York Review of Books characterized 2019 as “dystopian.” If he believes that 2019 is dystopian, then how might he characterize 1919, 1929, 1939 and the other ninth years of decades between then and now?
In 1919, a segregationist was serving as president, Jim Crow laws governed race relations and the flawed Treaty of Versailles set the table for World War II. The year marked the tail end of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed about half a million Americans, and it also saw the enactment of Prohibition — which, depending on one’s perspective, could be utopian or dystopian. Ten years later, 1929 saw the stock market crash that prefigured the Great Depression, during which the US unemployment rate would reach 25%.
In 1939, Nazi Germany allied with the Soviet Union, and the two nations invaded Poland, starting World War II. Japanese atrocities in China, commencing earlier in the decade, continued unchecked. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb and blockaded Berlin, Mao came to power in China, the FBI ramped up domestic political surveillance of Communists and Howard Unruh, a New Jersey war veteran, killed 13 of his neighbors in 12 minutes, one of the first of the random mass killings that would come to menace modern American life.
In 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union pointed thousands of nuclear-armed missiles at each other and the first American advisors were killed in Vietnam; 1969 marked continued American involvement in the Vietnam quagmire, government surveillance of student protests and the Manson killings; and in 1979, the Islamic Revolution took control of Iran, with some of its adherents seizing the US embassy in Tehran and holding the diplomatic staff hostage while the American economy struggled with high inflation, no economic growth and fast-rising interest rates.
David Crane is a lecturer in Public Policy at Stanford University and president of Govern for California. This piece was adapted from City Journal.
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images