PW: What were you doing in 1968?
Mark Kurlansky: I was a college student. I was protesting the war, going to demonstrations. I went to a small college for the performing arts, Butler University in Indianapolis. It was an unusually quiet corner of the world in 1968. We managed to have a few demonstrations. I met Bobby Kennedy. There used to be a restaurant in Indianapolis called Sam's Subway, which was supposed to be a New York—style deli. So I was there with a girlfriend, and suddenly I heard behind me [assuming a thick Boston accent] "...and, ah, I'll have the pastrami on rye." It was Bobby and a couple of his campaign people. I was a big Bobby Kennedy supporter.
PW: How would you defend the importance of 1968 today?
MK: It did have enormous impacts on the world. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of a huge shift in American politics. The liberal wing of the Republican Party was destroyed in 1968. In one sense, it was a terrible year—the worst year in Vietnam, a million people starved to death in Biafra, the murder of probably the two best Americans ever produced—but there was one great thing about that year, and that was the sense that you weren't helpless. If you saw your government doing things that were wrong, you could stand out on the street and scream, and thousands of people would stand with you, so you did have a voice. The political class learned a lot of things from 1968—one thing they learned is that you can't really afford to ignore popular movements.
PW: When Americans think of 1968, what is missing from their picture of it?
MK: That it wasn't just about the U.S. It was a huge year for the Soviet world and for Western Europe and for Latin America. In places like France and Germany and Japan and Mexico and Franco's Spain—really different places—the demonstrations would have seemed similar. They all had the American civil rights movement as their model. The one thing they all had in common was that they were against the war in Vietnam. but beyond that, the nature of the authoritarianism these young people were protesting was very different.
PW: How was the subject of 1968 different for you as a historian than your previous subjects, salt and cod?
MK: It's a very different experience to write about history that you've lived through. On the one hand, you're constantly informed and enriched by your personal knowledge—I didn't have to research what an antiwar demonstration was like. On the other hand, it's much easier to deal with history when it's not your experience. You have a built-in distance. I did a book about European Jews and another about the Basques. It was much easier to do The Basque History of the World, because I'm a Jew and I'm not a Basque.