VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1941–45)
VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000
A. General and Comparative Dimensions
In the second half of the 20th century, the rivalry of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, dominated world political affairs. Within this political framework, the globalization of virtually all aspects of human life continued. Yet the intensification of global interactions resulted in neither a peaceful “one world” society nor a world filled with identical technological dictatorships. Instead, local anarchies and assertions of special identities coexisted with global communications and economic networks and new transnational and regional structures. The major global dynamics of the second half of the 20th century can be seen in two broad dimensions: the evolution of global relationships in political, economic, social, and cultural structures, and in scientific and environmental interactions; and the intensification and diversification of concrete international relationships of institutions and movements.  1
1. Changing Global Patterns
Global relationships evolved in a number of important ways in the second half of the 20th century. The developments were reflected in three important areas: the changing nature of global power structures and conflicts; the impact of globalization on economics, science, and technology, and responses to the environment; and the emerging complex relationships among global, regional, and local aspects of culture and society. By the 1990s, there was considerable awareness of many different possibilities for the formation of “new world orders.”  2
a. Changing Structures of Global Power
The basic nature of global power structures, and even the nature of the most important conflicts, changed significantly during the second half of the 20th century. Such changes were clearly visible in 1) the transformation of imperialisms and the development of nationalisms; 2) the evolution of the cold war and the basic framework for world politics; 3) the development of international institutions for conflict management and resolution.  3
1. Imperialisms and Nationalisms
At the end of World War II, a number of major European states still controlled significant overseas empires. In the postwar years, the main transformation was the decline of the older empires and the emergence of two superpowers that replaced them as the major world powers. During the war, Allied promises and Axis conquests had raised hopes of national independence in many areas. After the war, growing nationalism and European weakness, sometimes furthered by cold war rivalries for Asian and African allegiances, led to decolonization.  4
Reestablished empires and new states. In the immediate postwar era, the major empires attempted to reestablish control in many areas but also granted independence to particular states. The empires faced movements of armed opposition and growing political nationalism.  5
Armed opposition to empires. In many of the areas that had been conquered by the Axis powers during World War II, there was armed nationalist opposition to attempts to reestablish European imperial control. In INDOCHINA, the Viet Minh, originally a movement of resistance to Japanese control, declared Vietnamese independence in 1945 (See 1945, Sept. 2). However, the French attempted the reconquest of its Indochinese colonies; in the long first Indochina war, the French ultimately lost and withdrew after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In INDONESIA, the Dutch attempted to reestablish control after the Japanese defeat, in opposition to the independence declared in 1945 by nationalists led by Sukarno (See 1945, Aug. 17). After a costly war, Indonesian independence was recognized in 1949. In SYRIA and LEBANON, French attempts in 1945 to reverse wartime agreements giving independence to the two countries were met with nationalist opposition. Under pressure from the United States, Great Britain, and the United Nations, French troops were withdrawn in 1946.  6
Negotiated independence in the immediate postwar era. The imperial powers and local leaders in a number of countries were able to negotiate arrangements for independence. In SOUTH ASIA negotiations led to independence for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from the British in 1947, and for Burma in 1948. INDIA was partitioned and, in 1947, became the independent states of Pakistan and India. Britain also withdrew from PALESTINE, where a United Nations–defined partition resulted in the establishment of Israel in 1948 and in the emergence of a Palestinian nationalist movement seeking to create an Arab Palestinian state. Both partitions resulted in bloody conflicts, but Great Britain was not involved directly in either postindependence war. However, Jewish guerrilla warfare during and immediately after World War II had put added pressure on the British to withdraw from Palestine. JORDAN received formal independence from its mandate status in 1946, although it maintained a special treaty relationship with Britain until the 1950s. The Philippines were proclaimed independent in 1946, shortly after their reconquest by the United States from Japan. Former Italian colonies were special cases. After considerable disagreement among the major powers, the United Nations established the independent Kingdom of LIBYA in 1951, and voted in 1950 to affirm the independence of SOMALIA under the trusteeship of Great Britain and Italy. Eritrea was included in the newly liberated Ethiopia with some autonomy, which was later lost in the 1950s.  7
Victory of nationalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the classic struggles between nationalism and imperialism reached a climax. By the end of the 1960s virtually every major colony in the large European overseas empires had gained its independence, and only smaller dependencies remained. This was achieved both through costly wars of nationalist revolution and continuing negotiations. The end of the European empires was often overshadowed by the tensions of the cold war, which threatened nuclear global destruction rather than costly local conflicts. Nevertheless, the end of the old empires marked a major transition, and the newly independent states became important members of the emerging THIRD WORLD, between the communist world and the West.  8
Wars of nationalist liberation. In a number of countries, independence came only after a fierce fight. In contrast to the nationalist wars of the late 1940s, these later wars did not build on structures developed as a result of World War II so much as they were the products of distinctive local developments involving imperial policies and nationalism. In ALGERIA, there was a large French settler community, and the French claimed that Algeria was part of France, not a colony. The Algerian war for independence (See 1954–62) began in 1954, under the leadership of the Front de libération nationale (FLN). The war involved counterrevolutions by conservative French Algerians and a transformation of the French political system itself. Finally, in 1962, after perhaps more than one million war deaths, Algeria became independent under an FLN government.  9
The British faced three major colonial conflicts in the 1950s. In CYPRUS, Greek Cypriot nationalists sought union with Greece and engaged in sometimes violent opposition to both the British and Turkish Cypriots. After negotiations that included Greece and Turkey, Cyprus became independent in 1960. In KENYA, local Kenyan resistance, especially to British settlers, led to the violent Mau Mau uprising, which was suppressed in 1955 (See 1952–59). However, the uprising increased pressures for negotiations, and Kenya achieved independence in 1963. In MALAYA, the British reestablished control at the end of the war, but a communist revolt began in 1948 among some Chinese Malayans. This conflict was costly, but it encouraged the British and the Malayan nationalists to move toward agreement on independence. The suppression of the revolt by 1955 was followed by Malayan independence in 1957 (See Aug. 31) and the formation in 1963 of the Federation of Malasia which included Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo, as well as Malaya.  10
The achievement of independence in the PORTUGUESE COLONIES involved wars of national independence following the revolution of 1974 in Portugal itself. In ANGOLA, a number of nationalist groups with essentially regional identities emerged by the 1960s. In 1961 a multisided conflict began in which three major groups fought against the Portuguese and each other. Negotiations after the 1974 revolution resulted in the proclamation of Angolan independence in 1975. Agreement among the liberation movements was brief, and the Movimento Popular de Liberataçâo de Angola (MPLA) formed a regime that received much international recognition. A postindependence civil war followed, which continued into the 1990s. In MOZAMBIQUE, the Frente de Libertaçâo de Mozambique (FRELIMO) began a revolution in 1964 against the Portuguese that resulted in independence in 1975. In the small Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, a remarkable, ideologically radical movement led by AMALCAR CABRAL, who was murdered in 1973, began a guerrilla war in 1963. By 1973, the movement controlled much of the territory and declared independence, which was recognized by the Portuguese after the 1974 revolution.  11
In SOUTHWEST AFRICA (NAMIBIA) a long war of national liberation was begun by the South-West African Peoples' Organization (SWAPO) in 1966. The Republic of South Africa received a League of Nations mandate granting control over the former German colony at the end of World War I, and it continued to control the area in defiance of the United Nations after World War II. SWAPO received considerable international support, but Namibia became independent only in 1990, after almost 24 years of nationalist guerrilla warfare.  12
Negotiated independence. During the 1950s and 1960s an extraordinary transformation took place, especially in Africa. In the 1950s, a few countries were the harbingers of a flood of new countries to come. Sudan (1956); Ghana, the former Gold Coast (1957); and Malaysia (1957) received independence from Great Britain. France agreed to the independence of Morocco and Tunisia in 1956. In 1958, GUINEA, under the leadership of Sékou Touré, voted to become independent rather than to be a member of the French Community. Then, 1960 was a year of independence in Africa. Thirteen former French colonies became independent members of the French Community; Nigeria, Togo, and Somalia received independence from Great Britain, and the Belgian Congo (Zaire) became independent and almost immediately was plunged into civil war. By 1969, another 15 African states had become independent, including Southern Rhodesia, whose white regime made a unilateral declaration of independence that received little international recognition. In the Caribbean region, four dependencies had become independent by 1969; elsewhere there were also the new island states of Malta (1964), the Maldives (1965), and Mauritius (1968).  13
Newly independent states became a significant feature in global affairs. In 1945, 51 states had signed the Charter of the United Nations. Then, between 1954 and 1969, 53 newly independent states also became members of the United Nations. This reflected the triumph of nationalism and the end of the age of the European overseas empires.  14
Changing nature of new states. In the final decades of the 20th century, the status of the remnants of the European overseas empires was defined, with a number of newly independent ministates being established. However, additional new states emerged as nationalist movements developed in response to other types of multinational and multiethnic structures, such as the Soviet Union. By the 1990s, a new process of national state formation had replaced decolonization as the major source of new state structures.  15
The remnants of overseas empires. In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the last small colonial holdings of European powers gained independence. Island groups in the PACIFIC BASIN that had come under imperial control in the 19th century had their political status defined. Some had been colonies; the former German colonies had been League of Nations mandates and United Nations trusteeships placed under the control of various powers. Among the first to gain permanent status were Hawaii, which became the fiftieth state of the United States, and Western New Guinea, which became a part of Indonesia in 1963. Independence was gained by Western Samoa, a New Zealand trusteeship, in 1962, and by Nauru, an Australian trusteeship, in 1968. Between 1970 and 1990, eight additional independent Pacific basin states were established. East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, following the Portuguese withdrawal, but a guerrilla movement fighting for independence emerged. In the 1990s, some island groups remained under the control of the United States, France, Australia, and New Zealand. In the PERSIAN GULF region, Kuwait had already become independent in 1961, and Britain formally withdrew from Bahrain, Qatar, and the small states that joined together in the United Arab Emirates in 1971. In the CARIBBEAN, nine new independent states emerged from British and Dutch control, though some islands, like the Caymans, opted for continued colonial status qualified by local autonomy. Between 1970 and 1990, 34 more new states joined the United Nations.  16
Postcolonial new states. In the final decades of the 20th century, SEPARATIST MOVEMENTS had little success in many areas, but the establishment of independent Bangladesh in the former East Pakistan, as a result of a civil war in 1971, was an important exception. Before the late 1980s, there had been a number of civil wars in newly independent states in which regions attempted to secede. In AFRICA, the newly independent nations maintained their imperially defined boundaries, despite their often arbitrary nature. As a result, there were regional factions that wished to break away from countries they did not feel themselves to be a part of. Regions that attempted to secede in unsuccessful wars included Katanga in Congo (1960–63), Biafra in Nigeria (1967–70), and southern Sudan (1955–72, 1981–90s). The only successful African secessionist movement was in ERITREA, where the Eritrean liberation movement fought against a series of different Ethiopian regimes and finally succeeded when a dictatorial Marxist regime collapsed in 1991; a referendum confirmed its independence in 1993. Elsewhere, KURDS failed to create an independent state from the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, although a short-lived Kurdish republic was created by the Soviet Union in northern Iran (1945–46) and an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq received international protection after the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91. TAMIL separatists in Sri Lanka began a revolt in 1983 that continued into the 1990s, and Philippine Muslims fought for autonomy or independence in some southern islands throughout much of the second half of the 20th century.  17
REDEFINED STATES. In the early 1990s, there was another burst of new states. Most of this activity was the result of a redefining of the political status of ethnic and national groups in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire, and of the new ways in which existing political identities were recognized. From 1990 to the end of 1993, 28 states were admitted to the United Nations. Eighteen new members were former republics of the Soviet Union, four had been part of Yugoslavia, and two new states emerged out of the former Czechoslovakia. The other new members were two Pacific island groups, North and South Korea, and the two African states whose wars of liberation were finally successful, Namibia and Eritrea. In addition, four old European ministates that had been dependent on larger neighbors for representation (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino) became independent members of the United Nations. The new states reflected the end of centralized, multinational empires of the old style, even the continental empire of Russia, and the emergence of a new era of smaller ethnic states and larger unions of states of a Common Market or confederation type. At the same time, larger structures of international coordination were being built. Not only the European Common Market but also the Confederation of Independent States, loosely linking most former states in the Soviet Union, and the North American Free Trade Association (1993), suggested new regional coordination. The domination of global affairs by European empires or by the two great superpowers had come to an end by the 1990s.  18
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.