Twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore at Brown University, it seemed to me that not much had changed in the world during my lifetime. Yes, I watched the Watergate hearings on TV that summer in color, in contrast with the black-and-white ghosts that had flickered on the screen and fertilized my imagination as a child. But I still needed the intercession of an operator to call my parents collect from the rotary phone in my apartment to ask for money. Perhaps the biggest change clear to me then concerned women. My class was the first to have women accepted to Brown itself rather than to Pembroke. Dormitories were coed—though not yet bathrooms. And there were no parietals to govern our comings and goings. The sexual revolution was in full and, I would add now, naive swing. But if the sex part of what was happening then was inevitably short-lived, the big changes with respect to women in society surely are not.
For this issue, we asked leading historians and other noted thinkers what the most significant or overlooked change of the last forty years had been. Their replies are collected here beginning on page 57.1 doubt many readers will be surprised that one of the dominant themes is the emergence of women. Another is the profound, if incomplete, success of civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities. Of course, while many of our pundits see the glass of the last four decades as at least half full, others bemoan the decline of civility and decry the growing cynicism about our institutions.
Notable for its near-total absence in our poll is the end of the Cold War. Can it really be that this conflict, which for so long drove so much of national policy and shaped so much of our national psyche, has so little meaning now that it is finally over? More probably, the implications are just beginning to unfold and their import can be only dimly guessed at—and dim guesses are not the stuff of the brains we picked. On the other hand, why America prevailed in the Cold War seems clearer and is vividly underscored by another story in this issue. “Agents of Change,” beginning on page 88, profiles ten people who are far from household names but whose achievements altered the very fabric of our daily lives. While Americans literally remade the United States over the last forty years, expanding the scope of freedom and unleashing the talents of women, blacks, and a new wave of immigrants, the Soviet Union ossified as communist ideology and centralized bureaucracy stifled creativity and conscience, thwarting revitalizing change.
In an interview that begins on page 42, Walter Cronkite observes that “history is the drama … of human existence.” I would add that change is its engine. Change is not inevitable; it does not just happen. People make it happen, and if the pace of change is quickening, it is because more people have more knowledge and more opportunity than ever before. That, I believe, is the ultimate source not only of pride in America’s past but of optimism for its future.