WikiLeaks last week announced quite a data dump: 500,000 diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department from 1978. Dubbed the “Carter Cables II,” the new documents track U.S. “interactions with, and observations of, every country” from that year, and are part of Wikileaks’s online Public Library of US Diplomacy, according to the site’s founder Julian Assange.
Why 1978, of all years? The whistleblower site has deemed it as a critical year in geopolitics, citing the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, President Jimmy Carter’s dealings regarding the neutron bomb and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
This isn’t the first time that a particular year has been deemed as one that defines “the present world order.” Whether it’s 1066 or 1966, critics, journalists and academics alike have long argued over the merits of certain years as being the most definitively important in history, citing specific political, social and cultural shifts that continue to reverberate and inform our culture today.
But what exactly marks a year as being world-changing? Is a year’s value in history measured in the magnitude of its revolutions, the chance assassinations and births that would later alter the course of history? What is deemed more “important”: the developments of civilizations, cars, currencies? Is there even a single year that kicked off “modernity” as we know it?
In history textbooks, 1066 is often cited as one of the most significant, if not the most significant, year for the English-speaking world: It included the death of Edward the Confessor, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of England that would not only cease Anglo-Saxon rule in the nation, but ultimately breed the language that we now speak and shape the European political climate for years to come.
Yet a work by Charles C. Mann, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, argues that 1491 was perhaps the most pivotal of our years, as Christopher Columbus would arrive in the Americas and radically alter the lives and practices of pre-Columbian indigenous people a mere year later, in turn shifting the narrative of colonization and conquest.
Then there’s the question of revolutionary political shifts. In 1789, the French Revolution rattled Europe, and would culminate with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte several years later. In the United States, the electoral college selected George Washington and John Adams as the young nation’s first president and vice president, respectively.
But for many people, the most pivotal years in humanity’s history are those of destruction, from the Civil War and Reconstruction in 1865 to 1945, which saw the dropping of atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the end of the Second World War. The latter undoubtedly left wounds the world is still recovering from, and military technologies and innovations that would shift combat entirely.
The post-war 1950s were a time of industrial growth, and the 1960s bred a countercultural reaction against that notion that continues to be iterated in many ways, from fashion to lingo. More than one book has been written about the significance of 1968, the year of two major political assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy) and when the emergence of the antiwar movement, the rise of Black Power, second-wave feminism and the Tet Offensive made headlines.
The following year, 1969, has been deemed as crucial as well: from Nixon’s swearing-in to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival and the disastrous Altamont Festival later that year to the horrific Tate-La Bianca murders that shook California, and then the world.
The Independent makes a case for 1973, the year the Yom Kippur War raged on and Watergate reached a boiling point. Newsweek in the past said that 1979 was a year that "truly changed the world," citing ruptures in foreign policy.
The resonance of 1991 is undeniable, too: After all, this was the year that saw the historic fall of the USSR. The dismantling of the Soviet Union dictated international relations for years to come, but its shadows continue to be seen amid the tension between Russia and neighboring Ukraine, and Russia and the United States.
Meanwhile, W. Joseph Campbell argues in his work 1995: The Year the Future Began that the events of that year—notably the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, as well as the O.J. Simpson trial—are what defined America as we know it.
Of course, then there’s 2001. Marked by the tragedy of 9/11, this year kicked off the messy “War on Terror” intended to halt terrorism, which has given rise to a slew of geopolitical alliances and ruptures.
Which brings us to 2015, a time in which robots are beginning to write our news, drones are being used for attacks and to deface public property and climate change is causing terrifying consequences.
Oftentimes a series of events happens in a single year because of pure chance, which suggests that we mortals have a semblance of control over the chaos theory that is human life. We don’t. People live and die, tragedies occur inexplicably and humanity finds ways to live through the tribulations and the triumphs alike as the years pass.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mao Zedong died in 1973. The former Chinese leader died in 1976.