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Looking Back at the 20th Century

Kris Schnee

The Twentieth Century, nearly over, was the single most eventful century in human history. Empires rose and fell, people long repressed were finally freed, and Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees. In light of all that has happened, the major events of the century are worth a review.

Rise of the Welfare State: Mark Twain coined the term now used to describe the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- “The Gilded Age.” There was little or no restraint on American corporations’ environmental, economic, or labor practices at the turn of the century. J.P. Morgan controlled the world’s largest corporation, U.S. Steel. But everything changed with the antitrust reforms of the 1900s and 1910s and the New Deal of the 1930s. The 1935 Wagner Act recognized the right of workers to unionize. In 1938, the national minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour. Franklin Roosevelt built the huge modern “welfare” system; we now take it for granted that the unemployed will be fed and housed by the taxpayers. The free market has become a hybrid economy with significant government control and wealth redistribution.

Rise and fall of Communism: Battered by its horrific casualties during World War I, Russia overthrew its monarchy and became a Communist state. Massacring millions of its own people and predicting worldwide Communist revolution, the new Soviet Union became one of the world’s two superpowers for most of the century. With the victory of the Communist government in China in 1949, and Soviet-supported revolutions in several Third World nations, Khruschev’s promise that “We will bury you” seemed very possible. Today the Berlin Wall has fallen, and McDonald’s sells hamburgers in Moscow.

Nuclear Weapons: The world changed in 1945 with the Trinity explosion, the first successful atomic bomb test. That same year, World War II ended dramatically with the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a single bomb each, probably preventing a long and bloody land invasion of Japan. For the first time in history, all-out war became impractical, because nuclear weapons would ensure the destruction of all sides. The “Cold War” between the US and USSR substituted for a World War III. The existence of nuclear weapons both maintains an uneasy peace between nations, and threatens to destroy us all. It is questionable whether there is anything we can do about it.

Human rights: In 1900, women and many blacks could not vote. They had, at most, second-class citizenship in the US. But with the influence of 19th and 20th-century thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Helen Keller, the importance of women in the temperance movement, and women’s work in industry during the World Wars, women finally gained the right to vote in 1920 and have entered the workforce along with men. Today women are not confined to the home, but many struggle to balance their traditional parenting work with their careers. This divided duty, and probably also some discrimination, have kept working women’s average salaries lower than men’s. Blacks’ achievement of full political rights did not come until the 1950s and 60s, when segregation was outlawed and the Civil Rights Acts enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Today the battle is over not civil rights, but “affirmative action” -- whether special legal advantage should be conferred on blacks and other minorities to make up for past discrimination. The situation has been improving, but minority groups still disproportionately live in poor and crime-ridden areas.

Relative decline of the West: In 1902, the US had just ended its military rule of the Philippines, but political control continued for decades. The industrialized world’s population grew rapidly, but the rest of the world grew faster, making the West’s large share of the world’s population decline. Today Europe and the US are approaching zero population growth (not counting immigration), while Third World countries still have high birth rates, and their population is already more than triple that of the industrialized world. With the formation of the United Nations, the Third World was given a greater voice than before in world affairs; now these countries’ cooperation is vital to world environmental treaties like the proposed Kyoto laws.

Food production: Throughout this century, biology changed the world. Improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides greatly increased farm productivity, staving off Malthus’ prediction of inevitable starvation, and making possible the world’s incredible population increase. From the origin of the human race to 1650, the world population increased to about 500 million. From 1650 to 1930, it climbed from 500 million to about 2 billion. In 1990, it was 5.1 billion. In 1999, it reached 6 billion. The population increased more in this decade than it did in a hundred millennia back in the Paleolithic era. Improved farming also freed the vast majority of the population (about 97% in America) to create an industrial, service, and information-based economy.

Medicine: In 1900, X-rays were the cutting edge of medical science. There were, however, not many effective ways to actually treat disease; polio frequently crippled children and smallpox and tuberculosis were major killers. But in 1928, the first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered, and it became possible to fight bacterial disease with more than placebos. Vaccination, a centuries-old technology, was greatly improved and made available for a wide range of viral diseases. Today the leading killers in industrialized societies (cancer and heart disease) are largely “death by default,” things that kill us because we live long enough for them to be problems. We now have surgery that can reattach severed limbs, artificial joints, organ transplants, MRI scanners, and a host of other inventions that save countless lives. We already have the beginnings of gene therapy and virus-killing drugs.

Computers: A “computer” was once a mechanical device which used metal rods and punched cards to solve math problems. The invention of electronic computers, and vacuum tubes, made these devices useful in code-breaking during World War II. Since then, advancing technology has made computers smaller, faster, and cheaper by many orders of magnitude, changing them from gymnasium-sized monsters only ownable by governments, corporations, and universities to tiny devices that are everywhere. Computers have already affected every aspect of society, including science, business, government, personal life, and the writing of newspaper columns. If their amazing advancement continues, computers will one day rival the power of the human brain.

Communications: In 1900, long-distance telephone calls were carried by “repeaters,” human operators stationed along the route of a call who parroted conversations to each other down the line. Not until 1915 was this awkward system replaced with a transcontinental vacuum tube network. Telephone calls between North America and Europe did not become possible until 1956. The first home televisions, with impressive 3-inch screens, were made in 1928. Today we have cell phones linked to satellites, the first high-definition televisions, and the World Wide Web. It may soon be common to use a single device for all kinds of communication.

The world of 1900 seems alien to those of us born only a few decades ago; the sheer magnitude of this century’s changes is amazing. Is it partly because we don’t often think about the past, and assume that the world has always been the way it is now? By looking at the twentieth century and its events, we can better grasp the vast changes which have marked the past 100 years, and realize how strange our time is going to seem to the inhabitants of 2100.