T WAS NOT the best of times, it was not the worst of times. It was, as Moynihan told us after Indira Gandhi had proved that a Watergate was impossible in India, the year that the United States became the world's largest democracy. It was the year Kuwait surpassed the United States in per capita income and Italy beat France in per capita wine consumption. The year Exxon became the world's largest corporation and the Comoro Islands the smallest member of the U.N. It was the year everyone heard of South Molucca.
But some of the things that didn't happen in 1975 were as important--and sometimes more important--than those that did. There was no bloodbath in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The world's economy did not collapse. The Arabs didn't buy Disneyland. New York City did not default--although no one is sure. Neither Kissinger nor Moynihan returned to Harvard and we didn't get the Kennedy Library.
Most things, of course, remained the same, as they always do. Pope Paul called for peace on earth. The New York Times noted that April, with its whippoorwills, arrived on schedule soon after the departure of March and its curlews and gusty winds. On some fronts, though, we were losing fast. The ozone layer was dissolving and the polar ice caps melting. On the other hand, Venice stopped sinking.
Nineteen seventy-five was a year that left few heroes intact or untarnished. Many of the most interesting figures--Patty Hearst, Jimmy Hoffa, and Howard Hughes--remained largely out of view. It was a catastrophic year for the best and the brightest, as JFK and Doris Kearns emerged with blotted copybooks, though for different reasons. Attempts to create new heroes failed miserably, despite heroic efforts in the cases of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter and Joey "Kid Blast" Gallo. And some shady characters weathered the year better than might be expected. Idi Amin, Isabel Peron, Indira Gandhi, and Stephen S.J. Hall all cling tenaciously to office.
But the verdict on 1975, like the verdict on its Bordeaux, will have to wait a few years. Was it the year that saw Portugal firmly placed on the road to socialist democracy or simply a prelude to dictatorship by the extreme right or left? Was it the start of a new era of independence for Angola or the start of a long, destructive civil war? A watershed in Spain, the Mid-East, South Boston and Northern Ireland--or just the beginning of more of the same?
Talleyrand said that no one who had not lived before 1789 knew how good life could really be. 1975 will probably never be thought of by anyone as such a critical dividing point in history. 1976 has a better chance. It is, after all, the two hundredth anniversary of the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Sobering thoughts--for Harvard and the world.