6.5 1968 – The Cold War Ages

Postwar Society

The second twenty years of the Cold War saw a number of changes, both positive and negative. 1968 becomes a kind of watershed year as a number of climatic events rocked the world. The youth movement reached its zenith in May of 1968. From Europe to Mexico, enormous uprisings led mostly by college students temporarily paralyzed universities, infrastructure, and even whole countries. What was to become the most iconic uprising against authority by the European youth movement began in a grungy suburb of Paris called Nanterre. There, the newly-opened and poorly-designed university faced student protests over a policy forbidding male students to visit female dormitories. When a student leader was arrested, sympathetic students in Paris occupied the oldest university in France: the Sorbonne. Soon, the entire Latin Quarter of Paris was taken over by thousands of student radicals (many of whom flocked from outside of Paris to join the protest), wallpapering buildings with posters calling for revolution and engaging in street battles with riot police.

Workers in French industry instituted a general strike in solidarity with the students, occupying their factories and in some cases kidnapping their supervisors and managers. Students traveled to meet with workers and offer support. At its height, French infrastructure itself was largely paralyzed.

Garrigues, George. "French Workers Protesting." June 2, 1968.
Garrigues, George. “French Workers Protesting.” June 2, 1968. Wikimedia. October 2, 2013.

The student movement had extremely radical, and sometimes very unrealistic, goals for itself, including everything from student-run universities to a Marxist revolution of students and workers. The French public sympathized with the students at first, especially since it was well known that French schools and universities were highly authoritarian and often unfair, but as the strikes and occupations dragged on, public opinion drifting away from the uprisings. The movement ebbed by late June, with workers accepting significant concessions from business owners in return for calling off the strike. The students finally agreed to leave the occupied universities. In the aftermath, however, major changes did come to French universities and high schools; this was the beginning of the (relative) democratization of education itself, with students having the right to meet with professors, to question grading policies, and to demand quality education in general. Likewise, and not just in France, the more stultifying rules and policies associated with gender and sexuality within schools and universities were slowly relaxed over time.

The “Events of May” (as they became known in France) were the emblematic high point of the European youth movement itself, at least in its most radical manifestation. The “thirty glorious years” of the postwar economic boom ended in the early 1970s, and the optimism of the youth movement tended to ebb along with it. Likewise, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, while understandably welcomed by the youth movement, did rob the movement of its most significant cause: opposition to the war.

That being noted, the youth movement’s legacy was profound. While no country in the Western world witnessed a genuine political revolution along the lines imagined by radicals at the time, there is no question that Western culture as a whole became much more accepting of personal freedoms, especially regarding sexuality, and less puritanical and rigid in general. Likewise, the youth movement’s focus on social justice would acquire momentum in the following decades, leading to the flourishing of second-wave feminism, anti-racist movements, and a broad (though far from universal) acceptance of multiculturalism and blended cultures.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book