The 20th century began with Europe stretched like a rubber band. Asia had been hot with Japan pecking on China’s door, colonial expansion, the Scramble for Africa coming to its conclusion and the beginnings of overseas American Imperialism in the Philippines and their near conflict with Germany of Samoa just over a decade before.
World War I had nearly been sparked by a number of incidents before the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were issues over Morocco roughly ten years prior, the Ottoman Empire continued to fall into disrepair and the Balkan wars were constant. But the spark ignited with the assassination as Austro-Hungary sent a list of demands to Serbia of which Serbia rejected. Austria-Hungary then threatened war which caused Russia to rise up using the excuse to defend the Slav.
Russia had historically claimed that it ought to defend the Slavs. Notably a number of Russians had emigrated southward. It is also important of note that Russia hadn’t defended Bosnia in recent history and this was also a slight to her prestige. However, prestige and perceived respect were important attributes in the waning years of the Victorian Era and the Tsar could not be dissuaded.
A series of alliances cascaded against one another as Germany backed Austria and France went with Russia. Italy was the odd-nation out at the first, as they had had an alliance with the Germans and Austrians but this was an offensive war which allowed them an out. Ultimately they would side with the Russians and French as would the British.
The war took an unimaginable amount of lives and altered the world. Monarchies came crashing down, regions were decimated, war crimes in areas like Belgium and Armenia were incredible. At the same time, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar, brutally murdering not only him, but his entire immediate family. The Russian Civil War invited all the powers, Americans, British and Japanese most notably, holding on to certain Russian regions while the White Armies battled the Reds. Again, atrocities were travesties for both sides and set up the moment for an eventual Bolshevik victory.
Few nations were happy with the peace. The Russians remained resentful, Japan wanted to further expand and Italy was only given a slight amount of what it thought it ought to receive. Meanwhile, colonies seemed to expand within the Middle East with the final failure of the Ottoman Empire.
The 1920s saw most uneventful events compared to the rest of the century. While it was important considering the lead up to World War II, the economy essentially boomed and then busted. Through the busted economy, Adolf Hitler rose and assumed power within Germany following in the steps of Mussolini in Italy years prior. At first, Hitler had been seen as a benefit to Germany, to give the Germans respect for their nationality and reconstruction. The economic restructuring and rebuilding had negatively affected all countries, so much so that nations weren’t nearly as concerned about the military buildup and the violations within the treaty of Versailles.
On the Soviet front, Stalin was building off his five years plans and committing genocide, this time against the Ukrainians in the 1930s. Later he would do the same against Poles, Jews, plotting against Georgians along with those closest to him. Stalin’s paranoia and murderous exploits exceeded that of even the Tsars.
The powers permitted Hitler’s expansion, appeasing him at every step. This, meanwhile, Japan began their war against China and FDR was stealing the gold of the people he was supposed to lead. Upon reaching Poland, Germany signed a deal with the Soviet Union to partition Poland, however, this was the moment where the UK and France had decided that Germany must be stopped. This time, Italy leaped to the German side as had Japan.
Japan continued to focus on its war in Japan, not doing much against Russia perhaps remembering the very costly Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and how many casualties both sides suffered in that war. While the Battle of Tsushima was important in that war, the Japanese navy wasn’t nearly as important for their war against the Soviet Union.
The acts of Japan were incredible, rivaling and eventually becoming even more vile than the Nazis. These acts of systematic genocide wouldn’t be seen again on this scale until the rise of modern-day China. Through and after the war, the Nazi’s would kill numerous minorities, primarily focusing on Jews while the Japanese would also conduct experiments on people, use gas, torture POWs and work them to literal death. Beyond these horrible acts, the Japanese would execute tens and potentially hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, notably in such events as the Rape of Nanking.
Some of these acts caused the United States to begin withholding such war materials such as oil from the Japanese war machine. At the same time, the Lend-Lease Act was actively supporting Britain, and eventually, the Soviet Union as well. However, France fell fast which left Britain entirely alone in the war. This ended when the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler, an event delayed in part due to Mussolini’s rogue and failed action within the Balkans; this delay resulted in Hitler driving into Russia on the cusp of winter. Not long after Japan had seen the eventual incoming of the United States; Japan declared war in a surprise attack (as they had done against the Russians almost forty years prior) on Pearl Harbor and a number of islands and places in Southeast Asia.
The invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler had stunted the war. While the invasion had initially been successful, eventually the Soviet Union fortified while the Americans expanded the war into North Africa and began an island hopping campaign in Asia. Western and Axis propaganda reached around the world and still filters down even through today where American and British soldiers are lionized in spite of their own flaws and inhuman acts.
The Allied powers eventually reached Berlin and isolated Japan. An invasion of Japan had been considered but would’ve resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. At the same time, the Soviets had finally begun moving against Japan’s mainland holdings and was steamrolling Central Asia and going further along the way. With the death of FDR, Truman was informed of the nuclear bomb. Ultimately, he decided to bomb Japan twice with the weapon after the Japanese refused unconditional surrender after the first bomb. Even after the second, there was an attempted coup within Japan to prevent the surrender, which failed. The end of World War II was officially signed shortly after.
The Cold War began immediately. The Soviet Union regained its lost World War I territory and refused to allow its satellites their freedom. Spies were common as was antagonism and future proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Once more the structure of the world had changed. While the British had been in decline since before World War I, the United Kingdom had definitely fallen behind the United States in power, as had the previous world powers of Germany and France.
The 1950s seemed to bring in a new era. With the United Nations formed, and with a self-imposed withdrawal from the organization, the United Nations opted to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion. This war would be a glimpse into the way future wars would be fought: through intermediaries and often with direct aid. The Russians offered some military technology while eventually the now Communist Chinese offered manpower. The war lasted for only a few years until an uneasy cease-fire was signed and goes on through today.
President Eisenhower constructed the infrastructure of the United States as spy games were played on the world stage. Furthermore, the United States expanded its influence over nations like Panama, where they built the Canal nearly half a century prior, and conducted a number of wars and internal manipulations to guide the countries into a more US-friendly, although not always democratic, direction.
With the death of Stalin, the USSR had changed dramatically. While Khrushchev wasn’t nearly as thuggish as Stalin had been, he was still a ferocious man. The gulags were still used liberally and political prisoners were stored in far off lands where walls weren’t even needed to keep prisoners from escaping.
1960 brought in JFK. Immediately he was offered with the option to invade Cuba as Eisenhower hadn’t made a firm decision for or against Castro. JFK opted to alter CIA plans and this resulted in catastrophic failure. And while he was failing in Cuba, he was building up Vietnam, following the trend Truman had begun.
Due to the Cuban failure, the USSR violated the Monroe Doctrine and began setting up missiles off the coast of Florida. This resulted in a 13 day standoff, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and nearly brought the world to nuclear war. After JFK backed off, noting in part Soviet weakness along with his own, an exchange came when both sides realized the faults of a potential nuclear war and an exchange was offered which allowed Communism to settle in Cuba.
The assassination of JFK before the end of his first term saw the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, an often unlikable and gruff southern man. Vietnam took flight and soldiers, material and cash flooded South Vietnam to fight off the Communists in the north. The main fear was the Domino Theory which suspected that if Vietnam had fallen, other Asian nations would follow, some of which had, notably Cambodia and Laos. However, there was only minimal communist influence in areas such as northern Thailand and the Philippines but it is unlikely the dominos would’ve continued to fall beyond those that actually had.
The Space Race was a great distraction for the American and Soviet peoples. The Soviets had launched Sputnik first, followed by a series of space dogs. The Americans had worried, considering the unknowns that would follow and hurried their own satellite into space. The Space Race was the new Scramble for Africa from the 1800s and what other colonies had been in prior centuries. Space was used less for science and more for one-upmanship on either side of the Cold War.
Through the 1970s the war in Vietnam had come to a whimpering end which resulted in a humiliating American defeat and disaster for the South Vietnamese as the Communists exacted their revenge. The Vietnamese quickly moved against Cambodia which resulted in a Chinese declaration of war in 1979 while Laos remained on the sidelines, along with the superpowers.
Inflation, leaving the gold standard, rising oil prices and other disasters torpedoed Carter’s presidency, much of which he had influence upon. Iran had forced a revolution into extreme Islamic radicalism and left the American sphere of influence overnight. There were considerations to try to save the Shah but President Carter didn’t go for it and likely made the right move considering the moment of the time.
The 80s saw the rise of Reagan and a number of new Soviet leaders. More proxy wars were fought in Central America, notably in Nicaragua and the like. At the same time, the Soviets moved into Afghanistan for a long eight year Vietnam-like war which the Soviets would also lose. Neither superpower had recognized that the way wars were fought had changed. And these were lessons they ought to have learned before each war was fought. The Soviets should’ve learned from America’s Vietnam. And American should’ve learned from the same guerrilla-like tactics they encountered in the Moro War in the Philippines at the beginning of the century.
Iran and Iraq went to war, also for eight years. The United States had manipulated both sides, again, potentially, the right move if viewed from an American political perspective. Meanwhile, the Americans were funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, much as the Soviets had done against the Americans in their overseas wars. This would come back to haunt the Americans in the following century.
The Soviet Union was beginning to fracture by the mid and late 1980s. Gorbachev had sought to open the Soviet Union, relax some of its hold and the world saw the rise of opposition such as in Poland with Solidarity. The meltdown at Chernobyl was also one of these events, perhaps the first, which hurried the destruction of the Soviet Union. These fractures continued until Yeltsin rose up through the confusion of the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Overnight this left the United States as the sole superpower of the world. Rare has the world seen such decisive control with the exception of the Roman Empire and certain Empires in Chinese history where these powers at one time had no real rivals. The exception of the Americans were, it was the first time in the history of the world where one power had such immense superiority over every other in existence.
Questions rose about what would happen to Russia and the United States helped them along. Illegal arms trades were constant and there were questions of what ought to happen to all the nuclear arsenals in former Soviet states, to which those had to be attended.
In the early 90s, Iraq invaded Kuwait, to which Hussein had thought little retaliation would follow. The United States under George Bush gathered a coalition within the United Nations and ousted Hussein with the strength of Norman Schwarzkopf and eliminated the Iraqi threat, preserving Kuwaiti borders. However, there were other questionable moves made on the world stage. Without a counterbalance to US power, the United States could essentially do what it wanted with few limits such as infiltrating itself into places like Somalia, or later, under Clinton, in the Balkans while periodically lobbing missiles into Iraq and the created no-fly zone.
The Asian economy which had been feared in prior decades, particularly that of Japan’s, came to a stagnating crawl. No more was the Japanese economy feared and its stock market continues to largely stagnate even three decades later.
Questions arose about the Russian election of 1996 which persist through today, in part, in an effort to reduce the legitimization of Vladimir Putin, who was essentially appointed by Yeltsin the last day of the 1900s. However, Yeltsin came through and continued to manage Russia’s post-Soviet recovery. Meanwhile the United States focused on economic issues, committing itself to what would later become known disasters such as NAFTA.
As the world has forgotten much of the late 1800s presidents, many of the US presidents and Russian/Soviet leaders of the late 1900s will also largely be forgotten in time, if they haven’t been already.
The 1900s had vastly altered the face of the world. Many historians make the point that World War I was a continuation of World War II and World War II is often considered a continuation into the Cold War. But the wars were different and were fought for different reasons. They were hardly continuations and to call them such is to bathe oneself in ignorance. The World War I peace treaty at Versailles wasn’t a failure, rather its lack of enforcement had been a failure and led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. While one war was effected by the other, they most certainly were not continuations.
The 1900s were a transformative century. In an age where motorized vehicles were only just becoming practical, soon the age of air followed along with the efforts into space. Likewise worldwide domination was fought over three times between rising, malcontent empires. Warfare was also fought dramatically different. Not since the Civil War were trenches brought out, trenches were exchanged for mobility, oil and tanks even though horses were still quite common in World War II and ballistic missiles, rockets and space were used while nations donated funds and war material to advance their personal ideologies in the moment.
The 1900s were an exciting and dangerous time. Perhaps, it could be argued, the most exciting, and factually, the most perilous.