1979: The Year That Shaped the Modern World


Saying that any one year in history was more significant in its contributions to the modern world than any other is a tall claim. After all, the past few centuries have seen their fair share of important years, and depending on a lot of factors, any one of them could be claimed to be more important than another.

While we agree with that line of reasoning, there’s one year that directly shaped today’s geo-politics and society unlike any other: 1979. From pivotal strides in technology to massive shifts in political currents across the world – shifts that still affect global relations – here are 10 ways the year 1979 made the modern world.

10. The Iran Revolution

The year 1979 brought massive changes to the Middle East, though no event compares to the Iranian Revolution in terms of the scale of its impact. What started out as a genuinely good people’s revolution based on the ideas of liberty and democracy was eventually subverted by Islamic fundamentalists, giving way to the Islamic Republic of Iran we know of today.

The rise of Iran was also the revival of Shia Islam, and its role in making the Middle East what it is today can’t be overstated. It wasn’t just a rise of powerful and brutal Shia militias within Iran – like Hezbollah – but also militias across the region, who’d go on to play a crucial role in the upcoming war against Iraq, as well as every other war in the region since then.

Iran – along with its allies and Russia – is currently winning the Syrian Civil War, not because it’s a particularly powerful country, but because of the soft power it wields through its militia networks across the Middle East. Their fighting forces are nothing to laugh at, either, which would probably not have happened if not for the events of 1979. Thanks to Iran, Shias are now a powerful – and rather dominating – fighting force in the region, which is one of the few reasons why the sectarian conflict is still ongoing.

9. Margaret Thatcher

Much like the rest of the world in 1979, Britain was going through profound changes. Now that the golden boom of the early post-war period was over, discontent and unemployment were as high as ever. James Callaghan’s Labour government was facing a spate of paralyzing union strikes across the country, and was promptly voted out in 1979.

He was replaced by Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were so influential that we still don’t have a full measure of their impact on the world. Her belief in free trade, minimum government interference, individualism, tax cuts for the wealthy and environmental laws would serve as a blueprint for successful conservative and neoliberal movements around the world.

Her most important role, however, was in permanently stifling the global South for the foreseeable future. Because of her – and Ronald Raegan’s, if we may add – persistence and influence in the IMF and World Bank, many impoverished nations under debt were forced to liberalize their economies in exchange for necessary bailouts. Known as structural adjustment programs (SAPs), these initiatives have caused a deluge of problems for the countries involved. The massive income inequality, weakening of social welfare programs and rise in conflict in many of these regions we see today is directly because of the implementation of policies required by those SAPs.

8. The Fall Of Communism

Most of us remember the fall of the Soviet Union as a clear marker for the fall of communism. That could be true for its geographical influence, though its fall as a popular belief system had begun much earlier. Much like its victory, communism’s defeat was more ideological than geo-political. While the changes were gradual, many historians agree that the end of communism was marked by John Paul II’s 1979 visit to his homeland, Poland.

It worked as a spark for the disgruntled and repressed population of the Polish People’s Republic; the biggest communist state of the time after Soviet Union. The various people-led committees formed during and after his encouraging visit would go on to form the Solidarity movement, which later overthrew the communist government in 1989. His visit also massively encouraged the people in other communist states to speak up, and some historians even say that many of Gorbachev’s policies that eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union were inspired by the Solidarity movement.

7. The Charney Report

For many people, climate change came out of nowhere. Here we were, going to beaches in the summers and generally enjoying a planet with a regular climate pattern, and suddenly the whole of Australia is on fire. While it may have come as a surprise to many of us, scientists have been saying pretty much the same thing since their first report, which happened to have come out in 1979.

Known as the Charney report, it was the first time a bunch of scientists sat down, did some calculations and agreed that greenhouse gases – like CO2 – may not be entirely good for the planet. It was also the first time someone precisely predicted the rise in temperatures about to happen in the following years. While it did little to sway the general public’s mood, it mobilized the science and research community and directly led to the development of many technologies we now use to monitor climate trends. Moreover, its predictions have been accurate in all the years since it was written, proving – if nothing else – that scientists know what they’re talking about.

6. The Nicaraguan Revolution

South and Central American countries are no strangers to revolutions of all kinds, though the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979 stands out for its impact on the future of the region. Fought between the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the ruling Somoza family, the brutal civil war set off a chain of events that shaped the political landscape of South America, as well as set the stage for all of violent uprisings and crackdowns of the following decades.

The war was initially won by the Sandinistas, though their communist nature didn’t sit too well with American interests in the region. Mexico, on the other hand, supported the revolutionary regime, and its military aid to the government in Nicaragua and other rebels in the region further destabilized it. FSLN’s war with American-trained Contras – locally trained fighters including pro-Somoza factions – would affect politics in neighboring regions for years to come.

5. The Walkman

In a year of political turmoil and civil unrest around the world, Japan of 1979 was going through a different kind of revolution. It was a time when Japanese companies were ruling the world of technology, from gaming to household appliances. While many products of the time could be called pathbreaking, one of them changed the modern world unlike any other – the Sony Walkman.

It may have been made defunct by mobile phones literally being full-fledged computers these days, but the Walkman’s release in Japan on July 1, 1979 marked the beginning of a long era we simply had never seen before. For the first time in history, people could listen to recorded music on the go, something that had never been possible before. The popularity of the Walkman also fueled the cassette industry, giving way to giant music studios that still exist today.

4. The Rise Of Wahhabism

If so many of these events seem to be from the Middle East, it’s because the year 1979 has been particularly inauspicious for that region. This one happened in Saudi Arabia, when a group of armed militants stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They demanded the ouster of the monarchy and called for a people’s revolution, though unlike Iran, they massively misjudged popular sentiment on the matter. In a battle that went on for weeks, the rebels – along with civilian hostages – were eventually defeated.

The incident – the first of its kind – shocked the Islamic world, and caused monumental shifts in the Saudi regime. It caused the king to invoke an even stricter form of sharia across the Arab world, which gave way to the rise of a radical, militant form of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and its nearby allies. Militant Islam originating out of Saudi Arabia and its allies has caused some of the most far reaching events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, like the fall of U.S.S.R. and 9/11.

3. Recognition Of China

As historians have noted time and again, 20th century American governments had a particularly huge problem with communist regimes. The U.S. has dealt with any new nation formed after a revolution like any level-headed nation would; by either literally going there to change their leader, or just refusing to acknowledge it until it ceases to exist. It hasn’t worked that well with bigger nations, though, like China. While it had initially refused to recognize the communist Chinese government, a trade partner as big as China has never hurt anyone. On January 1, 1979, U.S.A. recognized the People’s Republic of China as a nation.

That decision – combined with the liberalizing reforms of the newly-elected Deng Xiaoping – led to China turning into arguably the most advanced and rapidly developing nation of today. American recognition was soon followed by China formally entering the global market, setting the stage for its ascent to its current place in the world.

2. Saddam Hussein Seizes Power

Saudi Arabia and Iran weren’t the only Middle Eastern nations going through massive political and social changes in 1979. Iraq – a major military power in the region at the time and a backdrop of unimaginable violence in the following decades – was going through its own changes, starting with Saddam Hussein seizing the President’s chair.

The first thing he did was to violently suppress all opposition, as well as ally with extremist Sunni factions to oppose Iran’s growing influence. While it may not have been a Shia-Sunni conflict at the time, Saddam’s support for extremism to achieve political goals would have permanent ramifications for the region in the long term. However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t immediate repercussions, too.

Soon after his election, Saddam dragged his country into a long, drawn out war with Iran. Most of us may not even be aware it happened, though it was one of the longest and bloodiest war in history, and went on for about eight years. The war, along with the Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, permanently set the region up for a much more violent confrontation in the future, which came in the form of the Syrian civil war.

1. U.S.S.R. Invades Afghanistan

While there have been many important events in the 20th century, some – like the World Wars and Russian Revolution – stand out for the sheer gravity of their impact. One of those was the misguided Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The war – which started out on a successful note – would eventually bankrupt the U.S.S.R., end the Cold War, give birth to the modern idea of militant Jihadism and make leaders like Osama Bin Laden.

It’s not a very oft-discussed fact, though Soviets were eventually repelled by extremist Islamic factions armed and trained by the U.S., often through Pakistan or China. The Islamic fundamentalism so many countries are trying to fight today was initially promoted and encouraged to serve the strategic goal of opposing Soviet influence in that war. While it may have arguably over-served that goal – as the war ended up ruining the Soviets – we’re not sure if the trade-off was worth it. The decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed the world in more ways than we could count, or even know of.

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