LOCATIONS: Eastern Europe, Berlin, Pakistan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan
161. independence movements
Although the 20th century saw human nature at its worst, humans also made great strides during the century. Discoveries in the fields of health and medicine increased life expectancy, and the standard of living rose for people in much of the world. And, following World War II, colonialism came to a end.
European imperialism was based on the racist belief that the white Western nations were superior to all other cultures, which gave Europeans the right to conquer and control other peoples. After the horrors of Hitler and the Nazis, this kind of racist thinking was no longer acceptable, and the Western powers let their colonies slip away. Some colonies had to fight for independence while others won their freedom peacefully. Fifteen years after World War II, most former European colonies had gained independence.
The wave of post-war independence movements began with India, where Indians had been struggling for independence from British rule for decades under the leadership of British-trained lawyer Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi preached nonviolence; he and his followers were willing to accept pain in their fight for independence, but they were unwilling to inflict it. Adopting a tactic called civil disobedience, they disobeyed unfair British laws, endured police beatings, and went to prison. Gandhi shamed Britain by showing the world that Britain's democratic government was denying democracy to Indians.
Gandhi's independence movement gained widespread popular support shortly after World War I due to the Amritsar massacre when British troops opened fire on a peaceful gathering of unarmed Indians. The soldiers kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. Some 400 Indian men, women, and children died in the hail of gunfire, and 1200 were wounded. Following World War II, Britain finally granted India its independence, and India was divided into two nations: mostly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan.
India burst the dam of colonialism, unleashing a flood of independence movements that freed African and Asian nations in the 1950s and 60s. Gandhi's nonviolent approach was adopted by others including American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. India established a democratic, capitalist system that granted Indians personal freedoms and improved the economy. India became the world's largest democracy, but economic growth did not reach the nation's poor. A huge gap remains between India's prosperous, educated upper classes and millions of poor, illiterate peasants who live near starvation.
163. People's Republic of China
After the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, China plunged into four decades of turmoil. Following World War II, two Chinese armies fought for control of China. The winners were the Chinese communists, led by Mao Zedong, who established the People's Republic of China in 1949. The losers fled to the island of Taiwan off the coast of China where they set up an anti-communist government that still exists.
Unlike India's independence movement, which was led by European-trained elites, the communist takeover in China was a peasant revolution. It became a model for peasant revolutions in other places like Vietnam and Cuba. Mao's government made some huge mistakes; an estimated 30 to 50 million Chinese died from starvation when the communists mismanaged the process of setting up large collective farms. But in the end, the communists improved China's agricultural and industrial production.
After Mao's death in 1976, China's leaders opened the economy to capitalist-style, free-market competition. Since then, China's economy has grown rapidly, but China remains an authoritarian state that restricts the rights of its people. Nonetheless, the communist government's promise of equality has resulted in better nutrition, education, and medical care than in India.
164. the Cold War
By fighting two terrible wars in the first half of the 20th Century, the great powers of Europe ended their own dominance of the modern world. At the end of the Second World War, two new "superpowers" emerged as the world's strongest nations: the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union.
The Soviets angered and frightened the West when they took control of eight Eastern European countries on the Soviet border with Europe. The Soviets wanted a protective barrier in case another Western nation invaded Russia as Hitler had done in the 20th Century and Napoleon had done in the 19th. The Soviet Union and its "satellites" came to be known as the Eastern bloc or the Soviet bloc.
The U.S. responded to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe with the Marshall Plan, a program that sent billions of dollars in American aid to Western Europe to rebuild economies crippled by war and to strengthen them against communism. This was the beginning of an intense 45-year struggle between the Western capitalist democracies and the totalitarian states of the communist Soviet bloc. It was called the Cold War because the conflict did not turn into a hot, shooting war between the superpowers.
At the end of World War II, the Allies divided defeated Germany into two countries, capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany. Although the German capital of Berlin lay deep inside East Germany, it too was divided. West Berlin was a small island of capitalism surrounded by communist East Germany. In 1948, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin tried to force the Allies out of Berlin by blocking all roads and railways into the city. President Harry Truman faced a tough decision: should he send tanks to break through the blockade knowing this could trigger World War III, or should he abandon West Berlin?
Truman chose a third course, the Berlin Airlift. Within days, American and British cargo planes were landing in Berlin every few minutes around the clock supplying the needs of the city of two million people. Nearly a year went by before Stalin gave in and ended the blockade. Prompted by the Berlin blockade and fears of Eastern bloc military power, the United States and Western European countries formed a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe return to economic prosperity by the 1950s; now West Germans could own refrigerators and even buy cars. Many Europeans were grateful to the U.S. for coming to their rescue in two world wars and for helping to rebuild their war-torn countries. In much of the world, America stood for liberty and generosity. Conditions were not as good under communism. In 1961, communist officials erected a wall dividing East from West Berlin to prevent East Germans from leaving for a better life in the West. The Berlin Wall became the most prominent symbol of the Cold War.
Communists were now in control of the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. More people were living under communism than capitalism. The West was genuinely afraid of communist world domination and the downfall of capitalism and democracy. Western leaders feared that if another country fell to communism, more might topple like a row of dominoes: this was called the "domino theory." The U.S. set out to do everything in its power to stop the further spread of communism, a policy called containment.
The containment policy got its first big test in 1950 when communist North Korea, backed by the Soviets, invaded South Korea, which was backed by the U.S. This was also the first big test for the United Nations, an assembly of world nations formed at the end of World War II to promote world peace and cooperation. With the Soviet Union absent during the vote, the United Nations approved a U.S. resolution to send troops (mostly American) to repel the North Korean invaders. Reluctantly, China was drawn into the war in support of North Korea. After three years of bloody combat, the Korean War ended with North and South Korea occupying much the same territory they held when it began.
167. Vietnam War
Before World War II, Vietnam was a French colony. During the war, Vietnamese communists fought Japanese invaders and rescued downed American flyers. After the war, the Vietnamese fought France for independence and won despite American support for France. Although the communists were fighting for freedom from foreign control, U.S. leaders saw Vietnam as a "domino" that must not be allowed to fall to communism. The U.S. set up an anti-communist government in south Vietnam and sent thousands of American military advisers to support it. When it looked like the American-backed government was about to fall in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson took the U.S. to war. Three years later, a half million American troops were in Vietnam, and U.S. warplanes were dropping more bombs than fell during World War II.
The two sides were in the same conflict, but they were fighting different wars. The U.S. believed it was fighting the spread of international communism; the Vietnamese believed they were fighting for freedom from an imperialist power just as they had fought the Japanese and French. The U.S. found itself bogged down in a guerrilla war with no front lines and few large battles; the enemy would attack and disappear. As the fighting dragged on year after year, and the U.S. death toll mounted, American public opinion turned against the war. With no end in sight, the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. A small, poor, rural country had defeated the most powerful nation in the world, and no more dominos fell.
168. proxy wars
Although the United States and the Soviet Union never fought each other directly, they supported opposing sides in armed conflicts around the world. Local wars like Korea and Vietnam turned into substitutes, or "proxies," for the superpower death-struggle between communism and capitalism. The U.S. backed anti-communist forces everywhere, even dictatorships that overthrew democratically elected governments. Critics of U.S. policy accused America of betraying its democratic principles, but defenders of U.S. foreign policy argued that communism was so evil it had to be opposed by all means possible.
The Soviets had their own "Vietnam" experience in a proxy war in Afghanistan where Soviet troops were sent to fight anti-communist Muslim guerrillas supported by the U.S. The Muslim fighters, who included Osama bin Laden, won with help from shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles supplied by the United States. Again, guerrilla fighters from a small, poor country had defeated an invading superpower.
169. nuclear arms race
The United States was the only nation to possess atomic weapons at the end of World War II, but the Soviets soon developed their own atomic bomb. Cold War competition turned into a race to build the most deadly weapons of mass destruction. In 1952, the U.S. detonated the first hydrogen bomb with a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A year later, the Soviets had the H-Bomb. Both countries developed long-range missiles that could fly across the Earth to deliver nuclear warheads on enemy cities. The superpowers placed nuclear missiles on submarines that could escape detection, lie in wait off the enemy's coast, and wipe out large cities in minutes. The U.S. and the Soviets developed the capacity to destroy each other many times over and to turn the Earth into a dead wasteland.
The U.S. placed some of its missiles in Turkey on the Soviet Union's border. The Soviets placed missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the super-powers narrowly avoided World War III when they agreed to remove their missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. Fear of a nuclear holocaust hung over the earth; finally, some weapons had become too terrible to use.
170. Space Age
The United States and the Soviet Union carried their Cold War rivalry into outer space, competing in a space race closely tied to the arms race; it was long-range missile technology that made space flight possible. The Space Age began in October of 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into Earth orbit. America was caught off-guard and rushed to develop its own space program, which, after many failures, launched satellites into orbit. Then in 1961, the Soviets sent the first man into space. America followed with manned space missions. In 1969, the U.S. overtook Russia in the space race when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, an event that future historians may view as a major turning point in history.
Something unexpected happened when humans left the Earth, and we got our first good look at our home planet. It was a stunning sight! In contrast to all the dead, lifeless worlds visible in the heavens, Earth was a lovely blue sphere floating in space with white clouds swirling over pinkish continents. In all the dark, lonely, vastness of space, we could see only one water-covered world teeming with life. We realized how unusual and precious our planet is. This new view of Earth might represent the most profound shift in human perspective since the great voyages of discovery, and it came at a time when that beautiful blue sphere was being threatened with nuclear and environmental destruction by one of its own species.
171. modern art
After modern art began with Impressionism in the late 1800s, it took off in many directions. Most modern art doesn't look much like the real world, which can make it difficult for people to understand and appreciate. The two main categories of modern art are representational and abstract. Representational art portrays recognizable objects expressed through the artist's personal vision. Abstract art makes no attempt to portray the real world at all, reducing art to its fundamental elements of line, shape, color, and texture.
Reflecting its time in history, much modern art (and literature) has expressed anxiety resulting from two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the loss of individuality in mass culture. Pablo Picasso used both representational and abstract styles to convey his horror at the bombing of civilians at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso's broken and disturbing images suggest a chaotic world in which principles of morality and decency have been shattered, and civilization is reduced to rubble.
At the middle of the 20th Century, art moved toward the abstract, and art could be big and playful. Claus Oldenburg, for example, created huge vinyl hamburgers and a 45-foot steel clothespin. Christo hung a gigantic orange curtain between two Colorado mountains. Many scholars believe the foremost art form of our age is motion pictures, which combine visual images with elements of literature, music, and theater.
172. collapse of the Soviet Union
In 1985, a new and younger leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in the Soviet Union. He believed that progress in his huge nation depended on making fundamental changes to the Soviet system. Communism sounded great in theory, but it wasn't working very well in practice because people had little incentive to work hard or improve their products. Gorbachev called for a more open, democratic government and economic reforms that looked a lot like capitalism. He also signed treaties with the U.S. limiting nuclear weapons, and he surprised the world by giving up Soviet control over the satellite countries of Eastern Europe.
In a wave of rebellion, most countries of the Eastern bloc threw off their communist governments in 1989, and Germans happily smashed the Berlin Wall to pieces. Back in the Soviet Union, forces unleashed by Gorbachev's reforms were spinning out of his control: regions of the Soviet Union itself were breaking away and setting up independent republics. In 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, replaced by 15 new capitalist nations, the largest of which is Russia. Life got worse for many, and several of the republics are still struggling to develop working democracies and healthy economies. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the Cold War was over, and there was only one remaining superpower, the United States.
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1950 to Present: Cold War & Space Age