Risen, Clay. A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009. xii + 292 pages. Cloth, $29.95.
Nineteen sixty-eight is often viewed as a watershed year. As in the definition of watershed, two different bodies of water reached a shared destination, compelled there by the draining created by a ridge of land. In this instant, one body of water is American foreign policy and the other body of water is American civil rights--especially as the concept was being enlarged to include serious socioeconomic change for the poorest people regardless of their color. The common destination was a retrenchment, an acceptance of limits both in stopping Communism and in overcoming poverty, where Martin Luther King, Jr., had asked poignantly of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, can the United States win the war in the jungles of Vietnam and in the streets of Detroit? The answer given by 1968 was: Neither can be won, and furthermore, neither should be fought anymore.
In his epochal Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (2003), Jeremy Avril Suri marks it with something like celebration that student protest throughout the world's university centers--protests propelled by violent resistance rather than principled pacifist resistance, and protests laced with leftist ideology rather than an ideology of peace--so frustrated United States Cold War foreign policy that Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, was compelled to develop severely limited and even pessimistic geopolitical strategies that acknowledged not so much the limits of what the different Communists would impose on the United States abroad as the limits of what left-wing students would permit the government even to attempt. Suri's flow of water is thus sharply leftward.
By contradistinction, fellow historian Clay Risen shows a sharp rightward slope, resulting in an extreme racism in the suburbs, hopelessness in the inner cities, apathy on campuses, and redefinitions of liberalism and conservatism after a year, 1968, in which American public opinion had moved about as far leftward on some aspects of civil rights as it had at any moment since the 1930s. The two authorities do not seem to know of each other, but each shows an eventual destination for liberal policymakers that is one and the ilk, viz., sharply drawing back what will be attempted in foreign policy and...