Sometimes long-festering problems collide -- and explode -- in a single memorable year. We can go as far back as the fifth century B.C. to see this phenomenon -- and we may see it again in 2010.
In 480 B.C., a decade of Aegean tension culminated in the Persian invasion of Greece. Nothing seemed able to stop the onslaught of King Xerxes as he broke through the pass of Thermopylae -- until the Greeks under Themistocles rallied at the sea battle of Salamis and saved the West.
In A.D. 69, the Roman Empire was tottering on its very foundations. Rome had been rocked by decades of corruption, assassinations, coups and military revolts. By the end of 69, Vespasian -- the fourth emperor that year! -- had put an end to over a century of erratic Julio-Claudian rule when he brought sanity back to Roman government.
Fast-forward to the modern era. The rise of fascism erupted into war and conquest in 1939. That year, Franco's Nationalists won the civil war in Spain. The Soviet Union fought Japan in a border war -- during which it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany. Weeks later, the Nazi invasion of Poland marked the start of the Second World War.
Events in 1939 alone did not cause the outbreak of the global conflict. Rather, it followed from years of bad ideas like serial appeasement of Hitler, the near-disarmament of Western democracies and flirtation with pacifism. This behavior had inadvertently sent a global message: Britain, France and the United States were unwilling and unable to meet the challenge of totalitarianism. And so dictators called their bluff in 1939 and began to move.
Closer to the present, 1979 was another climactic year. Jimmy Carter's prior years of sermonizing about American bad habits had convinced many of the world's bad actors that it was time to press forward their regional agendas without fear of American reaction.
Once theater aggression began, there was little way to stop it. President Carter's whiny "crisis of confidence" speech in which he confessed to a collective American malaise only made things worse.
What a year 1979 proved to be! Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas took control of Nicaragua. The Iranian Revolution triggered an oil panic. A global energy crisis followed. Islamic terrorists took American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. About seven weeks later, the Soviet Union's Red Army entered Afghanistan. China earlier in the year had invaded Vietnam.