Following World War II’s end in 1945, the West had changed immeasurably. Gone were Western European powers Britain, France, and Germany. In the East, Japan had been annihilated. In control of the world were the United States and the Soviet Union. The two “superpowers” opposed each other both ideologically and economically and engaged in a nuclear arms race that sometimes brought the world to the brink of disaster. The “Cold War,” between the superpowers lasted approximately 45 years and did not end until the Soviet Union collapsed. No longer able to carry the weight of an increasingly expensive arms race, no longer able to repress its own population, and unable to hang onto its “empire” in Eastern Europe: the Soviet Bloc, which disintegrated in 1989. The Soviet Union fell shortly afterward in 1991, first becoming the Russian Federation and now known simply as Russia.
But much happened within the context of the Cold War in the West following World War II. The U.S. brought its wealth and power to bear on Western Europe and Japan, practically rebuilding the war-torn countries so the West could experience the largest economic boom in its history. The colonies formerly controlled by Western European powers and Japan sought to “decolonize,” and the majority were able to obtain independence by the 1960s.
For the United States, tangled in Vietnam’s war for independence, the “decolonization” process was brutal, forcing a reckoning not only in a foreign land but at home as well, where thousands of protesters rebelled against the war on nearly a daily basis throughout the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s. Fought in the context of the Cold War wherein communist North Vietnam ultimately triumphed over the U.S. backed South Vietnam in 1975, the Vietnam War was the prime example of war “by proxy” between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had been aiding Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese regime. For the United States, arguably the strongest superpower in the world, Vietnam was a lesson in humiliation. A small Southeast Asian country had won a war against the mighty United States. But the U.S. was not alone, France faced similar problems fighting Algeria in Northern African, and, by the late 1970s, the Soviet Union would face a similar “quagmire” in Afghanistan.
The postwar age can also be seen as the era where the countries of Western Europe, which had mired themselves in internecine warfare for much of the first half of the 20th century finally woke up to a world in which cooperation superseded competition. The cooperation began in 1951 with the European Coal and Steel Community (with six members), which led to a common market and ultimately the European Community (EC). The EC became the European Union (EU) in the 1990s and now has 27 members.
But back to the end of the Cold War, which ostensibly left the U.S. as the last superpower standing and the world’s only superpower after having beaten back the command economy of the Soviet Union (or at least helped with its demise). For some, this was a sign of “the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy.” (Perry, 521) However, as culture clash, terrorism, and war continue to blemish the “world system,” one wonders, was it really? This week’s reading assignment in Perry is pp. 498-521.
This is as far as we will get as we are coming to the close of this term, but I think we are far enough along in the history of the West to once again think about the status of the Enlightenment in our day and age. Are its core values of reason, individualism, tolerance, secularism, and universal rights still guiding the West? In the 20th century especially, we saw assaults on these values with the irrationality of Nazism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, we’ve seen Western liberal democracy pitted against religious fundamentalism, apparently contradicting the idea of secular progress. So for our final question, and there will be only one question this week double valued at 16 points, I will ask you to think about whether the Enlightenment and the values that accompany it are still relevant in today’s world. Did liberal democracy “win”?
At least since the beginning of the 20th century, we have seen an assault on reason in the West and a world that is irrational in many ways. This has been exemplified by world war, extreme nationalism, genocide, race, gender, and class oppression, and other societal ills, yet many still believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, which professes that humanity can be improved if it relies on values of reason, tolerance, secularism, and respect for universal human rights. Are these values being put to use in today’s world? Are they still relevant? In short, are we still in the age of the Enlightenment?