History Repeats: How 2008 Reflected the Past

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, March 18, 2008, digest the Federal Reserve's decision to cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point. Many investors had expected a cut of a full percentage point. (Image credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew.)

For all the talk about change, everything old seemed oddly new again in 2008. The events of this year, perhaps more than any other, had a way of dredging up historic memories, bad and good — from the ongoing, Depression-like economic scare to the Civil Rights struggles that led to Barack Obama's milestone election win.

Overall, 2008 was a year that made more sense if you had paid attention in history class. Here's how:

2008 was like the 1930s With the economic plummet taking firm hold of the national consciousness in the latter half of the year, talk about the possibility of "another Depression" had journalists scrambling for their Cliff Notes on the original incarnation. The Great Depression was long, deep and devastating, and while it doesn't seem likely the latest downturn will be anywhere near as bad, lessons learned from the mistakes and successes of the 1930s should come in handy for today's politicians.

2008 was like the 1980s The world descended upon China in August for the Summer Olympics, turning a spotlight on the country for better (friendly people, rich culture) or for worse (media restrictions, controversial gymnasts). It felt a bit like the 1980s, when the insular, 30-year-old republic first started to open its doors to the West, seeking economic progress and acceptance. What the world saw was a big, complex place filled with potential, but one also facing some serious growing pains in the form of student protests.

2008 was like the 1970s Also in August, Russia rolled into neighboring nation and former Soviet republic Georgia in an invasion eerily reminiscent of the USSR's expansionary campaigns during the Cold War. Back then, the United States was committed to fighting the spread of Communism and backed the Soviets' opponents. Today, things are a bit more complicated, and there was brief but widespread alarm that the United States and its allies may be forced to pick up arms against Russia again. Georgia and Russia ultimately came to a peace agreement on their own, though observers worry it could be a sign of things to come.

2008 was like 2005 As Hurricane Ike sped towards the U.S. Gulf Coast in early September all eyes were on New Orleans, which just three years earlier had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Luckily for that city's vulnerable levees but unfortunately for the state of Texas, the storm shifted westward and hit the low-lying island of Galveston as well as Houston. Advanced, urgent evacuation orders were credited with saving many lives, but as happened in 2005, many people ignored the call to flee.

2008 was like the 1960s Barack Obama was the uncontested newsmaker of the year with his historic election win on Nov. 4, which will make him the nation's first African-American president when he is inaugurated Jan. 20. It's a momentous occasion, especially considering that when Obama was born in 1961 at the height of the Civil Rights movement and during the summer of Freedom Rides, blacks hadn't yet been guaranteed the right to vote safely and without discrimination.

Heather Whipps is a freelance writer with an anthropology degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her History Today column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.