Thoughts on History
Magazine editors love a good anniversary. Give us an event that happened 50, 100, or 200 years ago and chances are we’ll find someone to write about it. There’s something seductive about a nice round block of time. For one thing, those numbers provide handy temporal yardsticks. Time flows past quickly, and it’s helpful to stop occasionally, take stock, and see how far we’ve come. The big milestone anniversaries are like rocks in the stream, good places to climb out of time’s flood and get your bearings.
In this issue we’re taking a long look at events from 50 years ago. Reading about them may make you think the world has changed drastically in the half century that’s passed since 1948. The Soviet Union, our adversary in the Cold War that absorbed so much time and energy in the years since World War II, has now become history itself. Germany, on the other hand, has been reunited, with once-divided Berlin its capital again. When I traveled through Germany in the early 1990s, I passed from the former East into the former West and saw the old guard towers that stood on the now-vanished border. They provided mute testimony to how quickly the world changed in just a few years.
Since 1948, the United States has fought wars in Korea and Vietnam. Domestically it has been involved in struggles over civil rights and women’s rights and our presence in Vietnam. In those 50 years we’ve seen one president assassinated and another forced to resign. Thanks in large part to the Vietnam War and the Watergate cover-up that toppled Richard Nixon, Americans are more cynical about their government than they were in 1948.
We’ve also seen great technical advances in the past 50 years. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik only nine years after the events we cover in this issue. Today a constellation of artificial satellites rings the planet, and we routinely use it every day for phone calls and television programs. Men have walked on the moon, and people live for months at a time in a Russian space station (which sometimes functions as though it were 50 years old itself). Computers have changed the way we do any number of things. If people from 1948 had peered 50 years into the future, they would have thought they were watching science fiction come to life.
However, if you think these last five decades have wrought great changes, consider what people in 1948 saw when they looked back 50 years. The half-century that started in 1898 saw not one but two world wars. When the Second World War began, units of Polish cavalry–men on horses–attempted to stave off the German blitzkrieg; that war ended with the explosions of atomic bombs. And with that horrific conflict over, the world geared up for the Cold War.
In 1898 the airplane had not been invented. By 1948 it had become a weapon of war, broken the sound barrier, and was poised to enter the age of jet passenger service. That 50-year interim saw the end of the Czarist monarchy in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The world witnessed the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Japan as a world power, and the beginning and end of the Great Depression. There was a lot of history packed into the years between 1898 and 1948.
It raises the question: what will historians write about 50 years from now? Only time will tell.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History