Essentials of World History from 1500 to the present



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Unit 11 - 1950 to the present: Cold War and the Space Age
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 an end.

Pre-war 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.
162. Gandhi

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. 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 remained between India’s prosperous, educated upper classes and millions of poor, illiterate peasants who still live near starvation.


163. People’s Republic of China

After China’s last dynasty, 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.

165. Berlin

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. U.S. 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.


166. containment

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.

Although the two sides were in the same conflict, 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, guerilla 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 devastation 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.

Unit 12 - Current Issues: A Changing World Order


LOCATIONS: Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Serbia
173. new world order

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Cold War was over; democracy and capitalism had won. There was no longer a balance of power in the world; America was alone at the top. President George Bush, Sr. said there was a “new world order,” and it looked promising. But all too soon, Cold War fears were replaced by new ones like terrorism and global warming.

Another new fear is starting to haunt Western nations: the possibility of losing their dominant position in the world that began with the age of European imperialism. Today when the West looks east, it sees a new reality. Where the West once saw colonies, it now sees nations like Japan, China, and India growing steadily stronger -- perhaps strong enough to challenge the dominance of the West.

One major fear left over from the Cold War is the spread of nuclear weapons, termed “nuclear proliferation.” Nine countries are known to have, or believed to have, nuclear weapons. Although the United States has been unwilling to give up its large nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has told other nations, particularly North Korea and Iran, that they are not permitted to have nuclear weapons. The U.S. has not objected to nuclear weapons in the hands of its friends such as Israel, Britain, France, and India. The nine nuclear nations are Russia (which has the most), the U.S., Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.


174. China

China is again a superpower as it was for centuries before the age of European imperialism. With the world’s largest population, labor force, and consumer markets, China’s economy has boomed since China opened its markets to capitalist-style competition in the 1980s. Meanwhile, China’s one-party communist government continues to deny Chinese citizens basic human rights such as freedom of the press and religion. China shows that a nation does not need a democratic government to have a successful capitalist economy.

Relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China have always been difficult due to their differing political systems, friction over the future of Taiwan, and perhaps because China still resents being pushed around by Western powers during the age of imperialism. Nonetheless, the Chinese and American economies are closely linked. China sells billions of dollars in goods to the United States annually, while the U.S. government has been accumulating billions of dollars in debt to China. American officials aren’t sure whether to consider China a friendly trading partner or a future threat as China’s economy and military grow, and the U.S. and China compete throughout the world for limited resources like oil.
175. globalism

The world is being drawn together as never before by international trade, communications, and mass media, a phenomenon termed globalism. Major industries now do business in what amounts to a single global trading market. The labor market has gone global too as Western companies try to save money and increase profits by outsourcing work to lower-paid foreign workers. Many people believe globalism is a good thing -- that when countries trade and communicate with one another, they are less likely to go to war. In Europe, for example, nations that were bitter enemies during two world wars are now partners in the European Economic Union, which has adopted a common currency called the euro.

Other observers have concerns about globalism. Will countries lose their distinct identities in a world dominated by mass culture? Another concern is that the rich industrialized nations of the world are controlling the global economy, consuming the world’s resources, polluting the Earth, and leaving little behind for the poorer countries, a global case of the “haves” versus the “have-nots.”
176. extreme poverty

Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” A major challenge facing the 21st Century is the growth of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has widened as rich nations got richer and poor nations got poorer. Economist Jeffrey Sachs reported to the United Nations that more than eight million people die every year “because they are too poor to stay alive.” The U.N. has established a goal of eliminating extreme poverty by the year 2025. For several decades the world’s wealthier nations have pledged .07 percent of their national incomes to reduce poverty, enough to reach the U.N. goal. But only a handful of nations have kept their promises. The U.S. has contributed between .01 to .02 percent.

While helping the world’s poor may seem like a simple act of kindness, it may also be in the best interests of the wealthier nations. James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, observed that poverty creates conflict that may lead to warfare and terrorism. He said, “There isn’t a wall around the United States or any of the developed countries...If you have inequity on a global scale, if you have people who are dissatisfied and unhappy, these are the breeding grounds of discontent.” According to Wolfensohn, reducing poverty is the best way to bring peace to the world.

177. Third World economic development

The world’s poorest countries are termed developing nations or the Third World. Most are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and most are former colonies. Many of these countries are still struggling to find economic models that will work for them. Three basic models have been tried.

Early capitalist economies such as those in Great Britain and the United States developed with little government control. Governments allowed the free market forces of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to control economic development. In the Third World, India adopted this laissez faire capitalist model.

The Soviet Union and China did the opposite. Communist governments completely controlled their nations’ economies. Government owned the factories, and government decided who would produce what products at what price. Such command economies did not prove successful over the long term.

Japan chose a middle ground. Authoritarian Japanese governments adopted capitalism, but they directed the economy by promoting some industries and discouraging others. After World War II, Japan rebuilt its shattered economy by developing industries like textiles that depended on large numbers of unskilled workers. As the skills and wages of Japanese workers grew, textile jobs moved to countries where labor costs were lower, and Japan went into heavy manufacturing, making products like motorcycles and cars. Next, Japan moved into high-tech industries such as electronics and computers. Japan’s successful strategy became the development model for other Asian countries including South Korea, Taiwan, and later China.


178. Latin America

Western nations long dominated the economies of Latin American countries. Latin America followed the classic colonial pattern of exporting food and raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. These arrangements benefited the white elites who controlled business and government in Latin America but made up less than two percent of the population. Poor, indigenous people received little. The lack of a sizable middle class might help to explain why Latin American economic progress lagged behind that of the U.S. and Canada. Since the late 1990s, however, Latin America has experienced its greatest period of political stability and economic growth since gaining independence in the early 1800s. And its middle class has been growing.

During the Cold War, when local political movements tried to improve conditions for Latin America’s poor, the U.S. often labeled these moves as communist threats. In the early 1950s, Guatemala had a democratic government that took unused land from the giant American-owned United Fruit Company and gave the land to peasants. In response, the U.S. arranged the overthrow of Guatemala’s government. In the unrest that followed, some 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, many of them poor Mayan Indians.

The United States went on to sponsor the overthrow of governments in several more Latin American countries and acquired a reputation for supporting wealthy elites and military dictators while opposing better living conditions for the poor. In recent years, anti-American leaders have come to power in several Latin American countries, promising to use their nations’ resources to help the poor. One was President Hugo Chavez of oil-rich Venezuela who complained, “The U.S. government sees itself as the owner of the world.”


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