Cold War themes were evident in the slogans and debates of the late 1960s' protest movements. As far as the Western world was concerned, criticism of U.S. dominance in political, military, economic, and cultural issues was a driving force for many of the leftist protest movements. Opposition to the war in Vietnam and American involvement in it was one of the dominant themes in the protest movements in America, Western Europe, Canada, and Latin America. In the United States, the evolution of the civil rights movement grew out of the understanding of a striking contradiction between the official rhetoric on justice and freedom as justifications of Cold War foreign policy and the domestic system of racial discrimination and segregation.
The protest wave was preconditioned by major changes in the East-West conflict from the late 1950s onward, particularly the strategic changes undertaken by the Soviet Union and the impasse created by strategic parity. These changes impacted domestic society and politics and shaped the conditions in which new, more radical forms of political and cultural critique could express themselves. First, after the 1953 death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin and upon the introduction of dramatic political and strategic changes by his successor Nikita Khrushchev beginning in 1956, the fear of Soviet communism decreased among large portions of the public in the West. Khrushchev's strategy of peaceful coexistence eventually facilitated the development of East-West détente, the first signs of which appeared on the European continent in the early 1960s.
Second, on the European continent the situation of quasi parity in strategic terms between the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) brought about the promise of mutual destruction in any future war. Adding to this realization was the fact that young people in the 1960s were of a generation that did not know firsthand the devastation and destruction of war. Despite its other-worldly omnipresence, they were less strongly alarmed by the nuclear threat than were their parents.
As fears of both nuclear war and communist takeover diminished, governments and ruling elites in the West needed new sources of legitimization. Leftist movements and allied student groups protested against the conditions of American hegemony in political, military, economic, and cultural terms. This was most visible in France. The eruption of student radicalism in May 1968 carried with it a fierce denouncement of American imperialism.
In the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and Asia—although in very different ways—domestic and international developments led to a situation in which political protest emerged. Communist governments such as the PRC under Mao Zedong, the Romanian regime under Nicolae Ceauşescu, and the Czechoslovak system under Alexander Dubček all at some point during the 1960s objected to Soviet dominance over the communist world and its strategy vis-à-vis the West. This, in turn, created conditions in which these nations' populations more or less openly came to criticize their own leaders and the communist ideology that underpinned their grasp on power. The interaction between a heterodox domestic communist leadership and the radicalization of criticism of society was most visible in Czechoslovakia, where the Prague Spring (1968) was eventually crushed by a military invasion led by the Soviet Union.
The repression of the Czech reform movement, the normalization (or forceful realignment) of the Soviet-aligned communist world after 1968, the dissolution of the most radical student movements in Western Europe and the United States, and the mediating of their protests through partial domestic reform marked the end of this brief era of global protest. This coincided with the rise of East-West détente on the international level beginning in the early 1970s, as evidenced by the Sino-American rapprochement and the warming of U.S.-Soviet relations. As a result of the pressure that their societies had put on them, governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to consider détente an absolute necessity, as it helped to create a new political consensus on the national and international levels.
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