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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

After 25 Years, Dinosaurs Are Gone at Last

It is 30 years since the phrase "a long, hot summer" entered the American political vocabulary in the context of the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King.

In 1965 the first serious urban riot took place in Watts, the ghetto of Los Angeles. Then came the Detroit riots and the anti-Vietnam War protests which wracked the Democratic Party's convention in 1968, and the long, hot summer became something worse than a cliche. It became the description of a pathology.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the Western world went suddenly mad. Student's riots and barricades in Paris, the Rudi Dutschke riots in West Berlin, the anti-Vietnam riots in London, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the United States, all jostled for place on the television screens with the war in Southeast Asia.

Then the Soviet Union went mad too, with the brutal military suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and suddenly the two sides of the Cold War looked equally bad.

The best opportunity the Soviet Union had known since Stalin's death to present itself as the more tolerant, less repressive and less imperialist of the two systems, was destroyed in Prague. The prospect of a Communist state peacefully evolving into a democratic one, into "socialism with a human face", was stubbed out.

The decision to crush the Prague Spring was a turning point in the long history of the Cold War, not only for what it did to Eastern Europe, but for what it meant in Russia. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was the event which began the modern dissident movement.

There had been a growing restiveness among the reading classes over the suppression of Khrushchev's thaw and the trials of Sinyavsky and Daniel. But Prague in 1968 put literary distaste into a raw political context. The first demonstrations in Red Square were followed by the wave of samizdat publications, human rights campaigns, and the slow mental revolt of the intellectuals.

The historic importance of that summer 25 years ago lay in the way the two systems reacted to its challenges. The Americans began to recognize that Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time and slowly swallowed the bitterness of their defeat abroad even as they lumbered on with civil rights reform at home.

By contrast, the Soviet system refused to change, convinced that sheer power could impose their will upon a stubborn and recalcitrant environment. It is really a tale of evolution, rather than revolution. Like the dinosaurs, the Soviet system could not adapt. Like humans, with quarrels and fits and starts and terrible mistakes, the Western system proved capable of change.

By the time the Soviet Union began to be led by a human in the shape of Gorbachev rather than a dinosaur like Brezhnev, the environment had changed too far for adaptation to work.

Now, 25 years later, we are all humans together, messy and querulous but hopeful that the dinosaurs are at last extinct.