Brief History of the World Wiki
Cuban Missile Crisis and Space Race
Sputnik 1.jpg
Period Contemporary Ages
Dates 1953-1963 AD
Preceded by
Outbreak of the Cold War
Followed by
Era of the Vietnam War
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

–Martin Luther King

The era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Space Race lasted from about 1953 AD until 1963 AD. It began with the end of the Korean War. It then ended with the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy.

By the early 1950s, the world had largely recovered from World War II, and clashes between Communism and Capitalism now dominated the era. The Arms Race and the testing of increasingly more powerful nuclear weapons continued, now including hydrogen bombs. The Space Race began, and would culminate in the first human landing on the moon. Yet the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Meanwhile, a growing group of African Americans spoke out against inequality and injustice, racial discrimination and segregation. It would be the beginning a new era of radicalism from feminism to gay rights, from the anti-Vietnam War movement to youth-revolts against the conservative norms.


Suez Crisis[]

Gamal Abdel Nasser, 2nd President of Egypt

Few events more dramatically demonstrate the new world order than the Suez Crisis of 1956. The kingdom of Egypt had been granted nominal independence from Britain in 1922, and in 1947 the British military presence in the region was withdrawn to the Suez Canal area; the Suez Canal was considered vital to maintaining Britain’s position in the Middle East and as a world power. However, King Farouk was seen as both corrupt for his lavish lifestyle, and a puppet of the British government. Egyptian nationalism had been growing since the First Arab–Israeli War (1948), with senior officers blaming the king for under-equipping the army. Acts of violence against British forces continued to be common, culminating in an encounter between British troops and rebels at Ismailia in January 1952, that left some British casualties but forty-six Egyptians dead. Widespread rioting swept Cairo and in the chaos King Farouk was overthrown in a popular military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser successfully negotiated for the withdraw of all British troops from the canal zone, thus removing the last cause of Egyptian resentment against British colonialism.


The Suez Crisis was provoked when the American and British decision to cancel an agreement to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River, due to Nasser's efforts to increase trade links between Egypt and Communist nations; China was by now the main market for Egyptian cotton. In July 1956, Nasser announced that the British and French owned Suez Canal Company was to be nationalised, in order to fund his pet project through the tolls on shipping; no compensation was proposed for the twelve years remaining on its lease. In response, the British and French concocted an ugly little charade with Israel to justify seizing back the canal; the Egyptian-Israeli border in Gaza had long been a dangerous flashpoint. In October 1956, Israel invaded Egypt and advanced south toward the canal. Britain and France immediately issued an ultimatum to both Egypt and Israel demanding a cease-fire and a withdrawal of their forces ten-miles from the Suez Canal. Israel immediately agreed; after-all her troops were nowhere near the canal anyway. As expected, Nasser refused to withdraw from the canal. In November, Britain and France retaliated with bombing raids on Egyptian airfields, and a ground assault by marines and paratroops that quickly occupied the canal zone. The United States and the Soviet Union were unanimous in their furious condemnation; as was that of the British Commonwealth. Within weeks, the British and French were forced to make a humiliating withdraw of their troops.

For Nasser, although he had lost almost his entire airforce and his troops were easily overrun, he'd gained everything he could have wanted; ownership of the canal and immeasurable prestige locally and in the region. He would rule Egypt until his death in 1970, and the country became a leading power in the developing world while successfully playing the United States and Soviet Union off one another; gaining economic aid from one, and military aid from the other, but aligned with neither. The Suez fiasco did untold damage to the reputation of Britain and France. Within two months, British prime minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign, and many historians conclude the Crisis signified the end of Britain's role as one of the world's major powers. Franco-American relations never fully recovered, with France striving more than any other country to remain non-aligned as a counter-balancing American power.

United States, Civil Rights, and the Cuban Missile Crisis[]

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61), the immensely popular national hero from World War II, had no particular party affiliation, and both the Republicans and Democrats sought him as their candidate in the 1952 presidential election. He decided to stand for the Republicans, and easily won; ending twenty-years of a Democrat in the White House. His vice-president was Richard Nixon. He started his term with an early diplomatic success, overseeing the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War. Yet Eisenhower’s approach to Communism was in many way even more aggressive than Truman’s, specifically emphasising in the Eisenhower Doctrine (1956) a willingness to use military intervention if necessary. In practice, as an experienced general, he was extremely cautious about getting into such military engagements. He resisted pressure from the his chiefs of staff and the vice-president to participate more directly in the Vietnam; since granted Vietnam independence after the First Indochina War (1954), France had been supporting the fight to defend the non-Communist south against the Communist north in a conflict that develop into the Vietnam War (1955-75). By the end of his presidency in 1961, there were only 900 US troops in Vietnam, in strictly advisory roles. He did despatch US troops to Lebanon in 1958 to support a pro-Western government in danger of being ousted by a hostile alternative, inspired by Nasser's success in the Suez Crisis. A US peace-keeping mission of 15,000 troops made a sudden and dramatic amphibious-landing on the beaches of Beirut. The point effectively made, the troops were able to leave again after just three peaceful months.     

Martin Luther King Jr in 1964

Meanwhile, although the Civil Rights Act (1866) and the 14th Amendment (1868) guaranteed equal rights to African Americans, these measures were increasingly disregarded in the south, where aggressive racial segregation and even lynching remained very much alive. A symbolic moment often quoted as the start of the modern African-Americans Civil Rights movement occurred in Washington in 1939. The reactionary Daughters of the American Revolution organisation refused permission for Marian Anderson, the famous African-American contralto, to sing in their Constitution Hall before an integrated audience. Instead, at Eleanor Roosevelt's behest, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an open-air audience of more than 75,000 people and many millions on radio. In 1957 and 1960, Eisenhower passed the first two pieces of legislation since the Civil War period specifically called Civil Rights Acts. And he was determined to enforce them. After the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, when the state of Arkansas disregarded the federal court order to integrate the classes in their public schools, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine black children into an all-white public school in Little Rock. His actions were very much in keeping with a developing movement against racial inequality, of which the most prominent figure was a black Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr. in December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, an African-American seamstress called Rosa Parks, a passenger in the black section of a segregated bus, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger when the bus was full. As a result, she was arrested and fined $10. Martin Luther King took the lead in the boycott of the buses by the black community that lasted for more than a year, and ended with a Supreme Court ruling against Alabama's racial segregation law for buses. The most dramatic event in the campaign for civil rights was the famous March on Washington, in which more than 200,000 people assembled peacefully on 28 August 1963 between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument demanding civil and economic rights for African-Americans. It is notable above all for King's famous speech, which ended with his vision of a future enshrined within the repeated phrase “I Have a Dream”.

Black Power salue by Tommie Smith and John Carlos after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meter at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.

Gradual steps towards eliminating the barriers to King's dreams were achieved in a series of acts passed during the 1960s, outlawing in turn different aspects of discrimination. The most significant was Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Martin Luther King attending the signing; King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. In 1965, King also led a series of peaceful marches from Selma to Montgomery in defiance of violent white segregationists obstructing African-American voter registration; these were supported by President Johnson who sent in federal troops to keep the peace. Yet a growing rift deepened between King and young militant black leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X for whom the pace of change was too slow and tame. The result was the emergence in the mid-1960s of the Black Power movement, aiming at achieving black empowerment and improving the standing of African-Americans in society. The most famous moment in their campaign was when two African-American medal-winners in the 1968 Olympic stood side by side on the podium while raising one arm with the hand in a black glove; a Black Power salute. Martin Luther King was not alive to witness it, having been fatally shot and killed in April 1968 by James Earl Ray, a staunch white supremacist.

John F. Kennedy in February 1961

In the presidential election in 1960, young John F. Kennedy (1961-63) narrowly defeated his experienced Republican rival, Richard Nixon, by an extraordinarily small margin; just 49.7% to 49.5%. A deciding factor may well have been the first televised presidential debate, in which Kennedy seemed relaxed and confident, whereas Nixon appeared very nervous. It ushered in a new era in American politics when crafting a public image and media exposure became essential ingredients of any successful presidential campaign. Kennedy became both the youngest president ever to be elected, and the first Catholic. He and his wife Jackie lent an unmistakable aura of youth and glamour to the White House. In his inaugural address he spoke of the need for all Americans to take an active part in society, famously saying: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy served at the height of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and much of his presidency focused on managing relations with the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas minutes before the assassination.

Just twelve months after the Crisis on 22 November 1962, John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline traveled in an open-topped motorcade through cheering crowds in downtown Dallas. From an upstairs window of the Texas School Book Depository, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine with Soviet sympathies, fired upon the car, hitting the president twice in the neck and head. He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital. A Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby assassinated Oswald days later while he was being transferred between jails. Almost immediately, alternative theories of Kennedy’s assassination emerged, including conspiracies by the KGB, the Mafia, and the US military-industrial; speculation over the assassination has persisted. In public-opinion polls, Kennedy consistently ranks with Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and the Roosevelts as among the most beloved American presidents of all time. Others criticise his womanising, lack of personal morals, and as a leader with more style than substance. No one can ever truly know what type of president John F. Kennedy would have become.

Cuban Missile Crisis[]

After a brief period of American military rule in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898), Cuba was granted her independence in 1902, subject to the terms of the Platt Amendment which leased certain facilities to the US navy including Guantánamo Bay, and pledged to allow US intervention if there was a threat to Cuban independence or good government. By the late 1920s, the country fell under the brutal control of a series of elected authoritarian leaders, first Gerardo Machado and then from 1933 Fulgencio Batista. Throughout Batista’s rule, he maintained extremely close relations with the United States, allowing American companies to buy up Cuban land, property, and industry, as well as allowing the island to become a haven for organised crime syndicates. In 1952, when it became clear that Batista was not going to be re-elected, he led a coup and seize power as a fully-fledged military dictator.

Fidel Castro, President of Cuba

Batista's corrupt and dictatorial regime soon provokes violent opposition, among them a young lawyer, Fidel Castro. In 1953, he was arrested after leading a failed weapons-raid on an army barracks. As a skilled lawyer, he used his public trial to condemn Batista's dictatorship and helped turn public opinion strongly in Castro’s favour. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but Batista was under intense international pressure for reforms and released him after two years. Castro fled to Mexico to regroup, where he gathered many disaffected Cuban exiles like Camilo Cienfuegos, as well as an Argentine doctor called Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November 1956, Castro and 81 men crowded onto a small yacht, and sailed for Cuba and revolution; the Cuban Revolution (1953-59). Although they were ambushed by government forces on landing, a handful of survivors escaped into the mountains including Castro. Many other rebel groups allied themselves with Castro and together they launched a guerilla war. Batista's attempts to flush them out all failed, and in fact many in the army opted to switch sides. Castro also encouraged foreign journalists to visit his guerilla base, increasing international attention and ultimately gaining them even more local popularity. In late 1958, Castro was ready to go on the offensive. One by one cities and towns were captured by the rebels, who were largely greeted as liberators. In December 1958, Batista took what loot he could and fled the country, and weeks later Castro's forces triumphantly entered Havana. Having seized power, the revolutionaries quickly consolidated their control over Cuba. On the one hand, they were repressive, arresting thousands of supporters of the old regime for war crimes, and prompting many Cubans to flee the country and seek refuge in US. On the other hand, they shut down the mob’s casinos, nationalised land owned by US companies, and set about reforming health facilities, housing, and schools.


These socialist policies soon changed the US attitude toward Castro from cautiously suspicious to downright hostile, prompting Castro himself to gravitate increasingly toward the Soviet Union. Cuba was far too close a neighbour for this to be tolerated, and in April 1961 John F. Kennedy gave the go ahead for a coup against Castro devised by the CIA. Some 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained as paramilitaries by the CIA, landed at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's south coast, supported by bombers supplied by the US. However, the invasion force was rapidly overwhelms a local militia and surrendered after just four days. Some 1200 were taken prisoner, with a few executed but the vast majority used as bargaining pawns. In December 1962, an agreement was reached to exchange 1113 prisoners in return for $53 million in food and medicine.


Just over a year after the embarrassing Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was faced with probably the most alarming challenge for any US president since World War II; the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962). The 1950s had seen a massive amount of nuclear weapons testing, with the United States and the Soviet Union each striving to achieve a nuclear advantage over the other; the US first detonated a true hydrogen bomb in 1954, and the Soviets followed suit in 1955. By the early 1960s, the Soviets were increasingly uneasy about US nuclear weapons that were stationed in Turkey and Italy within range of Moscow. The hostile relations between the United States and Cuba provided the perfect opportunity to level the playing field. From July 1962, the United States gradually learned from photographs taken by a U-2 spy-planes that the Soviet Union had begun shipping nuclear missile to Cuba, and construction work for their installation. The stated purpose, a year on from the Bay of Pigs, was to deter any repeated US attempt to invade Cuba. On 22 October 1962, Kennedy delivered an ultimatum to Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev that the existing missiles be removed, and placed a naval “quarantine” on the islands; it was called a quarantine because technically a blockade would be an act of war. Khrushchev replied forcibly that the blockade was an act of aggression likely to “propel humanity into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. A crucial moment in the unfolding crisis arrived on 24 October, when Soviet ships bound for Cuba neared the line of US vessels enforcing the blockade. Yet the Soviet ships stopped short, and a tense standoff ensued between the superpowers that through the week. The world held its breadth on 27 October, when an American reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba; US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara later recalled “I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see.” However, Kennedy ignored the incident for behind the scenes, negotiations were under way. The eventual solution would be partly made public and partly secret. The public would know that the Soviet Union had agreed to dismantle the Cuban sites and withdraw any weapons, both actions to be verified by the United Nations, and in return the United States would guarantee never to invade Cuba. What the public did not know was that the US also guarantees to dismantle and remove the nuclear weapons installed in Turkey and Italy. On October 28, the crisis drew to a close. Both the Americans and Soviets were sobered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The following year, a direct “hot line” was installed between Washington and Moscow to help defuse similar situations, and the superpowers signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Yet the Cold War was far from over. In fact, a legacy of the crisis was that the Soviets increased their investment in an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US from Soviet territory.

Russia and the Space Age[]

Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961.

After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, the Soviet Union was initially ruled collectively through the Central Committee of the Communist Party, of whom the leading contenders for the premiership were Lavrentiy Beria, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. However, Beria was too closely associated with Stalin's terror state, and was arrested in June and secretly executed in December; the last time the loser of a top-level Soviet power struggle paid with his life. Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64) deftly used his political skills to isolate Malenkov who threatened his rise to party leadership; a victory for the Party in a power struggle with the state apparatus. Once a loyal Stalinist, astonishingly in February 1956 Khrushchev gave a long speech that denounced the excesses of the Stalin era, as well as his “cult of personality”; possibly a move to strip the legitimacy of his remaining Stalinist rivals. The speech initiated a campaign of “de-Stalinisation”. The city of Stalingrad was renamed and Stalin’s remains were removed from Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square. On the domestic front, Khrushchev ushered in a less repressive era for the Soviet Union: he reduced the power of the feared secret police, released many political prisoners from the infamous Gulags, allowed greater freedom in cultural and intellectual life, and aimed at bettering the lives of ordinary citizens by increasing the production of consumer goods. He also launched bold but ill-conceived campaigns to encourage farming in areas not suitable for crops. However, the easing of political repression in Russia prompted protestors to take to the streets in the Soviet satellites of Poland and Hungary in 1956. The Polish revolt was resolved fairly peacefully, but the Hungarian revolt was brutally crushed with troops and tanks. Some 2,500 Hungarians were killed and 13,000 wounded, and mass arrests continued for months thereafter. Khrushchev had a complicated relationship with the West. He could be playfully charming or combatively belligerent depending on the audience. A fervent believer in Communism, he nonetheless preferred peaceful coexistence with the West, believing that capitalism would inevitably collapse allowing Communism to prevail. This change of doctrine, led to a split in 1960 with Chinese Chairman Mao who was fervently opposed to any indication of Western imperialism; as a result, the Soviets scrapped a plan to provide China with an atomic bomb complete with full documentation. Yet Khrushchev's period in office was marked by a series of crises: the shooting down of an American U-2 spy-plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 that prompted a marked deterioration in US relations; the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to stop East Germans fleeing to the capitalist West; and most significantly the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev’s perceived climb-down in Cuba weakened his political position. This, along with strained relations with China and other issues, led his political enemies to force Khrushchev to resign in 1964. Many of Khrushchev's innovations were reversed after his fall, but his era provided reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev with both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.

Replica of Sputnik I at the Museum of the United States Air Force

Meanwhile, one of the most dramatic and unexpected events in Khrushchev's premiership, at least for the United State, was the launch on 4 October 1957 of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik 1 into orbit around the earth, the world’s first artificial satellite; Sputnik means "satellite" in Russian. Less than a month later, the Soviet space program achieved another major “victory” in the Space Race arena of the Cold War, the launching of Sputnik 2, this time carrying a dog called Laika; the female stray died a few hours after the launch. These events prompted the United States to speed-up the nation's somewhat lethargic space programme, and create the new federal agency NASA. On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union surprised the world again by launching Vostok 1 carrying the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, into a single orbit around the Earth lasting two hours. Perhaps even more impressively, the famous cosmonaut returned safely to earth, parachuting from his capsule when it reached safe altitude.

Buzz Aldrin next to the Passive Seismic Experiment with the Eagle Moon Lander in the background

Clearly the US space programme needed a newsworthy achievement that would save the country's superpower prestige and capture the public imagination. John F. Kennedy's solution could hardly be more bold, telling a Joint Session of Congress that he was setting a new challenge for NASA, to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade. He glorifies the ambition by admitting the scale of the challenge: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult to accomplish.” From 1961 to 1964, NASA’s budget for the Apollo lunar landing program was increased almost 500 percent. The Soviets had their own plans for a manned mission to the Moon but by 1969, their Cold War rival would claim ultimate victory in the Space Race. On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 took off from the Kennedy Space Center carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Four days later, the Eagle Lunar Module separated from the Command Module, and took Armstrong and Aldrin to the Moon to make the first Moon walk in history, with Armstrong stepping off the lander with the famous words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The spacecraft returned safely to Earth on 24 July 1969; the mission was completed with 161 days to spare on Kennedy's commitment. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union cancelled their lunar program and instead focused on building a space station. On 19 April 1971, the Soviets successfully launched the world’s first space station called Salyut 1 which would form the basis for the Mir Space Station.

France and Algerian Independence[]

President Charles de Gaulle in 1958

For 130 years, Algeria had been the “flagship” of the French colonial empire. During World War I, animosity and discrimination between French Algerian and Muslims led some Algerian intellectuals to nurture the desire for independence, and this gained momentum after World War II when French promises of greater self-rule went largely unfulfilled. On 31 October 1954, a wholly unexpected uprising was launched with well-coordinated guerrilla attacks on French police and military establishments; the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). A manifesto was issued the next day declaring them to be the work of the recently formed National Liberation Front (FLN), a faction of young Algerian Muslims dedicated to winning complete independence from France. Guerrilla war and French reprisals now became an established pattern in the country, as French troops were built-up and some two million villagers were forcibly resettled to deprive the FLN of rural support. Many Algerian nationalist groups joined with the FLN, and French Algerians became increasingly alarmed that the government in Paris may come to terms with the rebels. In May 1958, French Algerians seized government buildings in Algeria demanding for Algeria to be merged with France and for the return of Charles de Gaulle. With right-wing groups in Paris becoming equally agitated, the French government bowed to pressure and recalled de Gaulle (1958–69) from his self-imposed exile. He drove a hard bargain, forcing the parliament to grant him the authority to draft a new constitution for a Fifth French Republic (1958-present); a dual-executive system with a prime minister and a powerful president.

The most pressing task facing the new president Charles de Gaulle remained Algeria. French forces, now numbering 500,000, were able to regain control of almost the whole country but only through measures even more brutal than those of the FLN, and the ferocity of the fighting sapped the political will of the French to continue the conflict. In September 1959, de Gaulle offered Algerians a referendum, as soon as violence in the colony had ceased, to choose their own future: full political integration with France; self-rule while retaining association with France; or complete independence. The immediate effect of this proposal was even greater unrest with French Algerians outraged at any suggestion that the link with France might be severed. In January 1960, an uprising in Algiers lasted ten-days until the army, loyal to de Gaulle, brought it to an end. In April 1961, there was an attempted military coup by four senior generals that was only put down through great firmness by de Gaulle. Two of the four general escaped arrest, and formed the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) to continue their resistance through a reign of terror against Muslims in Algeria, and against political targets in mainland France. In September 1961, an attempt was made to assassinate de Gaulle. Meanwhile, FLN guerrilla activities continued and in the autumn of 1961 the French government began secret negotiations with them. In March 1962, a cease-fire was agreed, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence. This agreement sparked off an immediate escalation of OAS terrorist activity, but in April 1962 its leader, Raoul Salan, was captured in Algiers. During the summer of 1962 about three quarters of the French colonists fled Algeria for France, making the referendum on 1 July 1962 a foregone conclusion; nearly six million voted for independence, and less than 17,000 against. De Gaulle formally recognised Algeria as an independent nation two days later. The war resulted in almost a million deaths and uprooted more than 2 million Algerian civilians.

Divided Germany[]

Konrad Adenauer in 1952

West Germany was established in 1949 as a federal form of parliamentary democracy, with the locus of power at the federal level laying in the Bundestag, the lower parliament chamber. It had a chancellor as headed of government, and a president as head of state. However, in response to the misuse of power in the Weimar Republic, the constitution greatly reduced the powers of the president. Initially, West Germany was not a sovereign state. Its authority over such matters as foreign relations, foreign trade, the level of industrialisation, and military security were subject to the permission of the Western occupation powers, and they reserved veto power over many other matters too. At age 73, West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was expected to serve only as a caretaker officeholder. However, he belied his age by his intense work habits and uncanny political instinct, and went on to retain the chancellorship for 14 years. Together with economics minister, Ludwig Erhard, he launched the Federal Republic on a phenomenal revival as a free market economy, alongside promoting social justice; the renowned Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle. A shrewd politician, Adenauer’s resolute policy of linking the new state closely with the Western democracies, as well as his skilful exploitation the Western fears of a Communist assault on Europe, allowed him to gain more and more concessions from the Western occupation powers, including even a limited rearmament of West Germany. It culminated in 1955 with West Germany becoming a full member of NATO, and regaining her full-sovereignty with a proclamation formally declaring an end to the military occupation.

Berlin Wall under construction in 1961

In East Germany, there was a form of democracy though not one that would be recognised as such in the West. The ruling political party was the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), a fully-fledged Communist party. Non-Communist political parties were allowed, but had to accept almost completely subservience to the SED as a condition of their existence, though they did have representation in parliament and received some posts in the government. The regime used its centralised control over a planned economy to invest heavily in heavy industries at the expense of the production of consumer goods. Moreover, war reparations required that much production be diverted to Soviet needs. Despite an impressive rate of industrial growth, the standard of living remained low, lagging far behind that of West Germany. Even food was a problem, as thousands of farmers fled to West Germany each year rather than give-in to the collective farms favoured by the Communist regime. The resulting material hardships, along with relentless ideological indoctrination, and repression of dissent, prompted many thousands of East Germans to flee to West Germany each year. In 1952, East Germany sealed its borders with the West, though not yet ending free movement in Berlin. Mounting dissatisfaction with the SED regime led to the first popular uprising in East Germany, when workers in East Berlin went on strike in June 1953. When the regime failed to respond, the workers took to the streets to demand a change in government, which quickly spread throughout the country. Inevitably, it was quelled by the intervention of Soviet troops, killing at least 21 people, and imprisoning some 1,300 rebels. The SED government portrayed the uprising as a plot by West Germany and the United States. In the aftermath, some concessions were made: Moscow ceased to demand reparations; and the SED leadership loosened controls somewhat on artistic and intellectual activities, increased the production of consumer goods, and relaxed pressure on farmers to enter collective farms. Yet, the flight of refugees through Berlin continued, especially among the better educated. In August 1961, the East German government surprised the world by sealing off West Berlin from East Berlin, first with barbed wire and later by constructing the concrete Berlin Wall. East Germans who now sought to escape by climbing over the wall risked being shot. Yet it did help the SED regime stabilised the economy of East Germany, which eventually became the most prosperous of all the Eastern Bloc countries, though it continued to lag behind that of West Germany. In 1960, Walter Ulbricht assumed the powers of the presidency, and sharply curtailed civil and political rights in what became a totalitarian Communist dictatorship.

European Union[]


The European Union represents one in a series of efforts to integrate Europe after World War II. At the end of the war, several western European countries sought closer economic, social, and political ties to achieve economic growth and military security. To this end, in 1952 the leaders of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Holland, and West Germany founded the European Coal and Steel Community, creating a free-trade area for key economic and military resources. Britain was invited to join, but the Labour government of Clement Attlee declined, owing to a desire to maintain economic independence, and a failure to grasp the community’s impending significance. In 1957, the six members signed the Treaties of Rome that established the European Common Market, eliminating most barriers to the movement of goods, services, capital, and labour, as well as a common external trade policy.

Japan's Recovery[]

Japan’s post-war Allied military occupation lasted until 1952; the occupation was almost entirely an American affair. General Douglas MacArthur proved an administrator of considerable skill, leadership and charisma. The new constitution established a parliamentary system of government, with the prime minister as head of government, and retained the Japanese emperor as a purely ceremonial head of state; it remains in place today. Within it, Article 9 renounced forever Japan's right to declare war or use military force in international disputes; although Japan now maintains a large military budget, unusually her self-defence force has never fired shots outside Japan. The occupation’s political democratisation was reinforced by economic and social changes: Japan benefited from unsettled state of other Asian countries in that reparations were largely limited to the confiscation of her overseas assets; land reform transformed tenants into owner-farmers; and the Japanese educational system was revised to encourage initiative and self-reliance rather than memorisation and indoctrination. By 1952 Japan had at last regained her pre-war industrial output, and thereafter, the economy expanded at unprecedented rates with the emergence of a mass consumer society. By the 1970s, Japan had become an economic superpower, its “economic miracle” the subject of admiration and study around the world. Meanwhile, Japan retained close ties to the United States, and Hollywood and American popular culture greatly influenced her young urban dwellers.

China and the Great Leap Forward[]

Mao and Chinese Vice Chairperson Soong Ching-lin, together with Nikita Khrushchev and Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam during a state dinner in Beijing, 1959

In the aftermath of two decades of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong (1949-76) governed a country that was many years behind the world’s great powers. While launching a wide-ranging program of reconstruction, Mao moved to consolidate his power: industry was nationalised in the major commercial cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou (formerly Canton), and in the countryside, land was confiscated from the landlord class, many of whom were summarily executed, with the land set-up as peasant co-operatives, at least for now. A comprehensive range of social reforms was also launched, promoting the status of women, doubling the school population, and increasing access to health care. Having restored a viable economic base, the leadership under Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and other revolutionary veterans were prepared to embark on an intensive program of rapidly industrialising China; the first Five Year Plan (1953–1957). Assisted by the Soviet Union, coal production doubled, steel and fertiliser production trebled, and steel and oil production increased four-fold. As in the Russian model, factories were given a target, and failure to meet it was the equivalent of failing the people. Criticism of the regime, which Mao sometimes sought such as in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956), he denounced as “old women with bound feet”, and ruthlessly crushed with thousands imprisoned. The success of the first Five Year Plan led Mao to believe in the limitless capacity of the Chinese people to be transform at will, and encouraged him to instigate the second Five-Year Plan (1958–1962) or the Great Leap Forward. This aimed was to increase agricultural and industrial production through mass mobilisation of labour. Peasant co-operatives were amalgamated into massive agricultural communes, most contained about 5000 families; 700 million people found their world turned upside down into 26,578 communes. Yet China lacked the administrative experience necessary to operate such enormous new social units, and commune leaders who complained about impossible targets were denounced as counter-revolutionaries. Steal produced was frequently too weak to be of any use, farm machinery that fell to pieces when used, and agricultural communes were chaos. The result was the disastrous Great Chinese Famine (1959-61) that killed an estimated 45 million people. The policy was abandoned and Mao's position in the Party was so damaged that he had to step back from the day-to-day running of China.

Chinese Incorporation of Tibet[]

The Dalai Lama, aged 21.

Meanwhile in Tibet, since 1950 when the Tibetan government gave in-to Chinese occupation in return for assurances of the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama over Tibet’s domestic affairs, resistance to the Chinese occupation had built steadily. While Tibet proper was not subject to the Chinese policy of collective farming, ethnic Tibetans in the neighbouring Chinese regions of Kham and Amdo were. Armed resistance broke out there in June 1956, and spread westwards into Tibet itself. By December 1958, rebellion was simmering in Lhasa, the capital. Important religious leaders had disappeared suddenly in Amdo and Kham, so the people of Lhasa were concerned when the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to watch a theatrical performance at their military headquarters in March 1959, while insisted on some highly suspicious security arrangements. On the appointed day, some 300,000 Tibetan protestors formed a massive human cordon around the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, to prevent him attending. As the stand-off continued, even the Dalai Lama pleaded with his people to go home and sent placatory letters to the Chinese commander in Lhasa. However by March 17, Chinese artillery had been moved into range of the palace. That same day, the fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama and his ministers used a prepared escape route out of the besieged capital, and began the arduous 14-day trek over the Himalayas to India. The uprising in Lhasa was brutally suppressed after two days of fighting, with the rebels badly outnumbered and poorly armed; some 87,000 were killed, including the public execution of all remaining members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard. The Summer Palace sustained over 800 artillery shell strikes. The Dalai Lama continues today to head the Tibetan government-in-exile from Dharamshala, India. He advocates increased autonomy for Tibet, rather than full independence, but the Chinese government generally refuses to negotiate with him. Meanwhile, since 1959, the Chinese government has been steadily tightening its grip on the Tibet, and encouraged thousands of ethnic Han Chinese to move there; Tibetans are now a minority of the population of Lhasa.

India and Pakistan[]

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's First Prime Minister.

Jawaharlal Nehru became the nation’s first prime minister in 1947, and his charismatic brilliance saw him retain the role for 17 years until his death in 1964. With universal adult franchise, India’s electorate was the world’s largest, but the traditional caste beliefs of most of its mostly illiterate populace were deep. Through his secular enlightened leadership, he embarked on an ambitious program of economic, social and political reforms. The British provincial borders were reorganised along linguistic and ethnic lines, while insisting upon the basic unity of India. Meanwhile, the first and second Five Year Plans (1951-61) succeed in almost doubling India's grain production, though the real economic benefits were largely eliminated as the population grew from about 360 million to 440 million. Nehru’s foreign policy was nonaligned, nonaggression, and to promote India’s role as the peacemaker. Yet China and India had unresolved disputes over several areas of their border. The tension was further heightened when in 1959 India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. A direct confrontation erupted in 1962, as India tried to establish her frontiers with outposts and patrols, and China responded with limited border war which resulted in a minor border change. Another fall from the high ground of nonviolence was India’s “police action” in 1961 to integrate Portuguese Goa into the union by force. As in Egypt, remaining nonaligned helped accelerate India’s economic development, as she received substantial aid from both sides of the Cold War; the growth of iron and steel industries benefitted from the United States building one plant, the Soviet Union another, Britain a third, and West Germany a fourth. By the end of India’s third Five-Year Plan (1961–66) India had become the world’s 10th most advanced industrial country, though productivity per person remained one of the lowest in the world. As modernity brought added comforts and pleasure to India’s urban elite, the gap between them and the areas of extensive rural poverty became greater. Various programs designed to reduce rural poverty were tried in the 1950s, but though a number of showcase villages emerged, tens-of-thousands of more-remote villages remained centres of poverty, caste division, and illiteracy. It was not until the late 1960s that high-yield food seeds brought great increase in production, though the results were mixed; most poor farmers were unable to afford the large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides needed.

President Ayub Khan of Pakistan

While the new leaders in India were able to pick up where the British left off, because Hindus joined the civil service in large numbers in the latter years of the Raj, their counterparts in the Pakistans had to build state institutions from scratch. The task was made all the more difficult because West Pakistan and East Pakistan (the future Bangladesh) were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory, and the one man in Pakistan who could command unquestioning loyalty, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died 13 months after Independence. His successors were both incompetent and corrupt, and most Pakistanis were relieved when a coup in 1958 brought General Ayub Khan (1958-69) to power. His presidency was characterised by the exclusion of East Pakistan from political influence, which laid the foundation for breaking up of the nation's unity in 1971.