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10-08-2015, 22:49

Reflection

As World War II came to an end, the survivors of that bloody struggle could afford to face the future with at least a measure of cautious optimism. With the death of Adolf Hitler in his bunker in Berlin, there were reasons to hope that the bitter rivalry that had marked relations among the Western powers would finally be put to an end and that the wartime alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union could be maintained into the postwar era. In the meantime, the peoples of Asia and Africa saw the end of the war as a gratifying sign that the colonial system would soon end, ushering in a new era of political stability and economic development on a global scale. With the perspective of more than half a century, we can see that these hopes have been only partly realized. In the decades following the war, the capitalist nations managed to recover from the extended economic depression that had contributed to the start of World War II and advanced to a level of economic prosperity never before seen in world history. The bloody conflicts that had erupted among European nations during the first half of the twentieth century came to an end, and Germany and Japan were fully integrated into the world community. On the other hand, the prospects for a stable, peaceful world and an end to balance-of-power politics were hampered by the emergence of the grueling and sometimes tense ideological struggle between the socialist and capitalist camps, a competition headed by the only remaining great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Although the two superpowers were able to avoid a nuclear confrontation, the postwar world was divided into two heavily armed camps in a balance of terror that on one occasion—the Cuban Missile Crisis—brought the world briefly to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Europe again became divided into hostile camps as the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union forced the European nations to ally with one or the other of the superpowers. The creation of two mutually antagonistic military alliances—NATO in 1949 and the Warsaw Pact in 1955—confirmed the new division of Europe, while a divided Germany, and within it, a divided Berlin, remained its most visible symbols. Repeated crises over the status of Berlin only intensified the fears in both camps. In the midst of this rivalry, the Western European nations, with the assistance of the United States, made a remarkable economic recovery and attained unprecedented levels of prosperity. In Eastern Europe, Soviet domination, both political and economic, seemed so complete that many doubted it could ever be undone. Soviet military intervention, as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, reminded the Soviet satellites of their real condition; communism appeared, at least for the time being, too powerful to be dislodged. The Helsinki Agreement, signed in 1975, appeared to be a tacit admission by the West that the Iron Curtain had taken on a near-permanent status. In the meantime, behind a shield of Soviet troops and tanks, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites acted to stabilize the socialist system and realize the promise of a better society. Although Nikita Khrushchev appeared to harbor a sincere belief in the superiority of Marxist-Leninist ideas over those of the capitalist West, by the 1960s for the average citizen in the socialist bloc countries, the dream of a utopian society had begun to fade, and party leaders cynically manipulated the system for their own benefit. Only in China was the dream still alive, actively promoted by Mao Zedong and his radical disciples during the frenetic years between the Great Leap Forward and Mao’s death at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Whether or not his “uninterrupted revolution” was simply a lastditch effort to retain power, Mao appeared to have a real awareness that even in China there lurked the danger of creeping bourgeoisification. His failure is a striking testimonial to the difficulties of continually stoking the fires of social revolution. In the West, economic affluence appeared to give birth to its own set of problems. The voracious focus on material possessions, an intrinsic characteristic of the capitalist ethos, helped promote high levels of productivity in office and factory but at the same time produced a spiritual malaise in individual members of society, who increasingly began to question the meaning and purpose of life beyond the sheer accumulation of things. As the spread of scientific knowledge eroded religious belief, increasing social mobility undermined the traditional base-level structural units of human society—the family and the community. Modernity, as postwar society in the West was now commonly described, appeared to have no answer to the search for meaning in life beyond an unconfirmed and complacent belief in the Enlightenment doctrine of progress. For the have-nots of capitalist society, the sources of discontent were more immediate, focusing on a lack of equal access to the cornucopia of goods produced by the capitalist machine. To their credit, political leaders in many countries sought ways to extend the benefits of an affluent society to their disadvantaged constituents, but success was limited, and experts searched without result for the ultimate cause. Nowhere was this more the case than in Latin America, where resource-rich nations like Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela continue to be plagued with political instability, flagrant corruption, and a widening gap in the distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor. The driving force behind many of these changes in the postwar world was the Industrial Revolution, which continued to undermine the political, social, and economic foundations of traditional society, without disclosing the final destination. Human beings could only hope that as old ways were inexorably ground up and chucked aside in the new industrial world, the expanding power of scientific knowledge would provide them with clues on how to manipulate the situation to their ultimate benefit. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union and its system of satellites suddenly came tumbling down, leading to the emergence of truly independent nations in Eastern Europe and rising hopes for the emergence of a New World Order. But it soon became clear that the end of the Cold War had also unleashed long-dormant ethnic and religious forces in various parts of the world, producing a new round of civil conflicts and a level of terrorist activity reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century. In Part IV of this book, we will explore the impact of these events on the continents of Africa and Asia.

 

 

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