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The instant the world changed

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JASON LEE/REUTERS

(Read caption) STUDENTS IN BEIJING WAIT TO ATTEND A CEREMONY MARKING THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE END OF WORLD WAR II.

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This is the bookend to a column published in May (click here) marking the end of World War II in Europe. Seventy years ago this month, that terrible war was finally over. Japan’s formal surrender came on Sept. 1, and the new world took shape almost immediately – the next day, in fact. That seems important. The world can change in the blink of an eye.

On Sept. 2, Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, setting off a struggle that lasted into the mid-1970s. On the 8th, American troops landed in the south of Korea, a month after Soviet troops occupied the north, roughly dividing the peninsula at the 38th parallel, where it remains divided today. On the 20th, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru demanded India’s independence from Britain.

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In October, David Ben-Gurion launched a revolt in Palestine that would culminate in the birth of Israel. Indonesia sought independence from the Netherlands. Eastern Europe began to fall behind the Iron Curtain. China slipped toward civil war. And everywhere, everyone understood that the atomic weapons that ended the war were a dangerous new reality.

In his book “Year Zero: A History of 1945,” journalist Ian Buruma describes the hunger, homelessness, and desperation across Europe and Asia in the fall and winter of ’45. Relatively quickly, however, the wounds of war healed, largely because of the generosity of the victors and the desire of the vanquished to leave the past behind. The dead were buried, the injured aided, the hungry fed. Shops and factories opened. A new world began.

We still live in the post-1945 world. Despite conflicts that have broken out since then, our world remains more or less under the postwar rule of law. The United Nations and other deliberative bodies promote negotiation over brute force – and most nations accept that, most of the time. Atomic weapons remain a grave concern, but none have been used since Nagasaki.

All that could shift. India and Pakistan, Iran and Israel, Russia and Ukraine, China and the nations of East Asia – all are potential points of conflict.(In a Monitor cover story, Simon Montlake profiles a China expert -- click here -- who counsels a strategy of careful engagement with China as it finds its way forward as a global power.) 

To borrow a phrase from evolutionary biologists, world order travels a path of “punctuated equilibrium.” Things seem solid and normal on the surface, then suddenly the old order gives way to the new.

That was September 1945. Late that month, the Monitor carried a report from New York on an address by the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, to the first class of postwar students. “The world of today is obviously at the end of a long and heartbreaking experience,” he told them. “This is the reason we must look forward. We must do everything possible to contribute to the development of a world which will conform to our highest ideals of human faith and human conduct.” 

We haven’t always done that. But we still can.


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