War, famine, pestilence and death - the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - have been well represented in years ending in "4," but probably not disproportionately so. A look at memorable moments in the last seven of these just might lead to optimism for the one that’s upon us. Or not.
• 1944: Those of us who don’t remember this year are lucky; a soldier cited in Rick Atkinson’s brilliantly horrifying saga of the last two years of the war in Europe, "The Guns at Last Light," quotes King Lear: "The worst is not, So long as we can say, ’This is the worst.’" The end of the war was in sight; getting there was the trick, and millions were killed in the interval. Things have not been this bad since.
• 1954: If there was a golden era of U.S. foreign policy, it ended here, as Eisenhower warned against involvement in Vietnam while espousing the domino theory. Good: Joe McCarthy’s power began to ebb. Not good: The words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
• 1964: The last year of the baby boom was mind-blowing. In the 28 months beginning that January, Bob Dylan made five of the best albums of the era - and there were the Beatles.
Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, and Lyndon Johnson single-handedly sent everyone into a tizzy by signing the Civil Rights Act, sending more "advisers" to Vietnam, talking about bombing North Vietnam and proposing the Great Society. Huh? The first anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and draft-card burnings took place. Pot smoking officially began. (Not really, but sorta.)
The civil-rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were found dead; just writing that gives me chills.
• 1974: The mid-’70s were glum. We can gloat about Nixon’s resignation, though don’t forget he founded the Environmental Protection Agency. Gerald Ford gave his predecessor a better deal than he gave draft evaders. He also determined that we needed to Whip Inflation Now, as oil passed $10 a barrel. Everyone made jokes about him, with reason.
Patty Hearst was kidnapped. Ted Bundy disappeared many people. Augusto Pinochet declared himself "supreme chief" of Chile and disappeared many more.
The high point may have been the Ramones’ debut at CBGB.
• 1984: Big Brother was not (yet) our biggest problem, but this was not a good year. President Ronald Reagan, presumably not yet stricken by Alzheimer’s, remarked over an open mike that the bombing of Russia would begin "in five minutes." Geraldine Ferraro became a vice-presidential candidate, and lost. Margaret Thatcher went to war with miners, and won. Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and a Union Carbide leak in Bhopal killed untold thousands.
The virus that causes AIDS was discovered. People started smoking crack. And Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father.
• 1994: Whoa: Not only did Nelson Mandela not spend his life in jail, but he became president. The Brady Law went into effect, and Bill Clinton signed the assault weapons ban. (It expired in 2004.) O.J. Simpson spurred a national obsession. Four bombers were convicted of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
Reagan was implicated in the Iran-contra cover-up, but it seemed more important to torture the Clintons over a bad real estate investment. (Still, Paula Jones wasn’t the Republicans’ fault, was she?) Clinton fired Joycelyn Elders for discussing masturbation.
The first credit default swap was created. Nearly everyone in Rwanda became either a killer or a victim, or so it seemed. And there was that messy thing in "the former Yugoslavia."
Netscape Navigator was released.
• 2004: Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic convention and there seemed reason for hope; then John Kerry went windsurfing and W., incredibly, became president again (what were 62 million of us thinking?) several months after endorsing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which Massachusetts had already legalized. (By 2013, even Utah is on the right side of this issue.)
W. also promised to improve education and access to health care; we all know how that worked out. Lance Armstrong won his sixth Tour de France; we all know how that worked out, too.
The Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 230,000 people. Martha Stewart went to jail. And Johnny Ramone (born 1948) died.
• 2014: President Obama is calling this the "year of action." Here’s hoping he’s not bluffing and begins by demonstrating how popular progressive legislation is by circumventing Congress in areas of food, energy and climate change. The alternative could be a visit by the Four Horsemen.
Mark Bittman is a New York Times columnist and food writer.