BOSTON — Decades, those arbitrary spans of 10 years by which we measure the progress of our lives, seldom conform exactly to the rigors of the calendar. But the present decade, to which we are about to bid farewell, was marked by the bookends of 9/11 and the greatest financial meltdown since 1929.
Each decade has a personality of its own, and Time Magazine recently branded this one as “The Decade From Hell.” The Magazine had other names for it too, “the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.”
The decade was dominated by George W. Bush, and I am willing to bet that future historians will brand his reaction to 9/11 as the greatest over-reaction in history. That 19 suicide bombers could spend only half a million dollars and provoke such havoc, involving the United States in two wars that will continue on well into the next decade, seems incredible. We have made it the most successful act of terrorism in history.
In what should have been considered an international criminal conspiracy to be combated by good intelligence and better police work, Bush sent armies crashing into Muslims countries in an over-reaction that will most certainly add more recruits to terrorism than it has eliminated, or ever can.
A hundred years ago, in the last century’s first decade, America fell in love with Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive Republican who, as Samuel Eliot Morison wrote: “accepted the new industrial order … but wished to probe its more scabrous excrescencies [and] bring it under government regulation.” President Obama will be lucky to be only half as successful in that effort. Roosevelt’s imperialistic urges, however, would later be much admired by neo-conservatives.
That century’s second decade fell under the long shadow of Woodrow Wilson. After the guns of World War I had been silenced, the United States stood at the pinnacle of its power — even more so than after World War II. Wilson’s 14 points presented at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 were the hope of the world, or its despair, depending on what you had to lose or gain from Wilsonianism.
What followed is remembered in song and story — a decade that began at the end of the World War and, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “leaped to a spectacular death” with the crash of 1929.
Fitzgerald summed up the decade as “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure,” new music, new art, new mores and new prosperity, "an age of miracles … an age of excess,” born aloft on a wave of forbidden speakeasy alcohol." But then “somebody blundered,” Fitzgerald wrote, “and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”
The 1930s brought unprecedented poverty, political agitation and misery as the collapse of assets on Wall street spread across the Atlantic and around the world like an all-consuming pandemic. The word “depression” has been reserved for that decade, as if a descriptive cup had been retired.
And soon it became apparent that Wilson’s “War to End all War” had not succeeded as planned. Rampant militarism overtook Germany, Italy and Japan, and it would fall to another Roosevelt to combat them. The Thirties ended with World War II when war production cold-cocked unemployment.
The first half of the Forties were the war years. The second half saw the coming of the Cold War, and upheavals in the so-called third world for whom the “White Man’s Burden” had become the burdensome white man.
President Eisenhower’s calm demeanor symbolized the “silent generation” Fifties. Despite war in Korea, prosperity rose as pent up consumer demand was released, but the Sixties brought in a cultural revolution as youth once again strove to turf-out an older generation’s values. It was Vietnam, Woodstock and Rock 'n' Roll, but it had a self-destructive edge with riots, assassinations and drugs. The decade brought civil rights and new freedoms, but its radicalism and bad manners would provoke a conservative reaction with Ronald Reagan in the not too distant future.
The Seventies brought humiliation in Indochina, stagflation and Jimmy Carter’s malaise. In the year 1979, the Shah of Iran fell, with Iran turning into an enemy instead of a friend, and by Christmas the Soviets were pouring into Afghanistan — events that haunt us still.
The Eighties, as journalist Lansing Lamont wrote, “brought the laptop into our lives and the end of the Cold War.” It was the decade of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” He had “the surety of a confidence man, which in some ways he was,” wrote Lamont. “Trained in the art of make-believe and brimming with Rooseveltian optimism, Reagan convinced millions of Americans that the good times were about to roll again.” And they did.
With the Cold War over, America settled down to boom times once more. As in the Twenties, fortunes were made. The fin de siecle decade that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ended with the fall of the twin towers in 2001.
Our decade is paying for the excesses of the Nineties. It is ending with a new president whose greatest gift is hope, and not being his predecessor. But it was Time that added the saddest postscript. “Once we were the sunniest and most optimistic of nations.” But “no longer,” as the new century enters the decade of its teens.