I frequently ask my history class “what is the most significant enduring fact of the twentieth century”? In explaining, I emphasized “enduring” rather than single event. In most cases, the most significant fact was the beginning of something/someone. For America, it was July 4, 1776, for the airplane, the Kitty Hawk event, for the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, for the Civil War, the firing on Fort Sumter, etc. etc. Equally, everyone celebrates their birthday each year, whether they’re 90 or 10.
Single events begin a process, so it is only natural that a conception is more important than a middle or an ending. For the century, it means that the answer must lie in the early part, so answers like the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War etc. are invalid. What presupposed these events that explains the entirety, rather than its subsequent parts?
Explaining further, I note that consensus on the century targets World War I as the catalyst for most events that followed, including both World War II, the Cold War, and most recent events, including Islamic terror. But World War I ended in 1918, so what continued its legacy from then until now? It’s fairly easy to identify June 28, 1914 (assassination of the Austrian Archduke) as the single most important moment, but what carried this momentum into the unknown future?
Pause for your own answer….
The idea was to connect 1914 to 1939, to 1945 to 1991, to 2001. What single fact was common to all of these periods that, one way or another, either beginning or ending, was significant and consistent throughout? Answers varied, but not by much. Most students identified the great societal/ideological movements, Fascism, Communism, Socialism, etc. Fascism died in Hitler’s bunker, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, while there never was, not once, a true “Marxist” government, i.e. a “proletariat” revolution. For Socialism, remember that Nazi Germany was the “National Socialist German Worker’s Party,” while the Soviet Union was the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (USSR). Partly Socialist countries, such as Sweden, cannot make up the legions of failures, portrayed long ago in the classic book The God that Failed (1949).
That leaves Democracy as the only alternative. But students had trouble with this as a political movement, since Woodrow Wilson failed so badly with the League of Nations (the U.S. never joined) and governments that could truly call themselves “democratic” in the last century were few and far between (and still are).
So what is the answer, what defines the Twentieth Century? The answer is not precisely the political concept of democracy but, perhaps, is better understood as a “precursor” or “pre-condition” of Democratic Capitalism. The answer lies more within the word “civilization” than any single political concept. Democracy, furthermore, is a system of government that controls domestic behavior, while the Twentieth Century involved literally hundreds of movements, regimes, ideologies, and continuous warfare that cannot possibly be supervised by an electorate or an Assembly. The result may produce a number of democracies, but isn’t responsible for the behavior of billions in a span of 100 years.
So what was? The answer (finally): the solidarity and cultural/strategic direction of the “English Speaking Peoples.” That was, and is, my own answer, and, while no one student ever got it right, I always reminded them of the subjectivity of the viewpoint and then opened it up to discussion. I must confess, very little dissent, over many years (the course was taught by me 48 consecutive times).
What, then, supports this answer? Its origins go back as far as the Monroe Doctrine (1823), when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who wrote it) “colluded” with the British Navy to keep the Western Hemisphere free from attempts to re-introduce colonialism back into the region. By century’s end, with a rising Germany, Great Britain began to cultivate the possibility of bringing the U.S. into its orbit should the need arise. British concessions on territorial claims helped alleviate American insecurities, particularly British acquiescence on U.S. control over any future interoceanic canal.
In effect, the “New World” was brought back to redress the imbalance of the “Old World.” As Professor Samuel Flagg Bemis wrote, Britain:
“… left the New World to the American system, and henceforth she tried to bring the United States, thus strengthened, to cast its balance on her side in the world politics of the twentieth century.”
The decision may have been the most momentous in British (and U.S.) history. The die, in effect, was cast for the remainder of the century. Through the trials of history’s greatest wars, American strength, despite being neutral at the beginnings, eventually rescued Britain (and the western world) from the grips of despotism and Fascism, both in 1918 and in 1941. So secure was Churchill in his close relationship with Roosevelt and American power that he wrote in his diary the day after Pearl Harbor that, “I knew the United States was in the war up to the neck, so we had won after all.”
The beginning of the Cold War saw Britain again acquiesce to the reality of American power. In February 1947, Whitehall sent Washington notes that Britain could no longer supervise the post-war world. The result was the Truman Doctrine (March), the Marshall Plan (June), the Berlin Airlift (1948) and NATO (1949). The following years of containment saw a continuation of this “special relationship” until President Ronald Reagan, aided closely by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, put an end to the Cold War and the USSR as well. Nor was it coincidental that Prime Minister Tony Blair was first to support and aid the U.S. War on Terror after 9/11, despite severe criticism at home.
The relationship has declined since then. Now we have Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, with Johnson occupied with BREXIT and Trump with MAGA. A free trade bill is pending between the two countries, an item that might just salvage a historic partnership. If this fails, we just have memories.
In a front pew in the Foundry Methodist Church, eight blocks from the White House, is a plaque that reads: “Here on Christmas Morning, 1941, sat President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill.”
The plaque is still there. Where are Roosevelt and Churchill?