5 Historical Events You Should Know: World War I, World War II, The Cold War, The Space Race, The Vietnam War

5 Historical Events You Should Know

In a society that expects education to serve useful purposes, history’s function can seem less clear than those of engineering or medicine. However, knowledge of historical context can help you test your moral sense and learn from the complexities faced by people in past societies.

For example, the historical context of Huckleberry Finn can provide insight into why open discrimination against African Americans was still so prevalent in 19th-century America.

1. World War I

When World War I began in August 1914, few people expected it to be as long or as disastrous as it would become. Most assumed their country’s side would win in a matter of months.

By the time it ended in 1918, more countries had been drawn into the conflict than any other previous war, making it the first truly global battle. It was the first to involve airplanes, tanks, long-range artillery, and submarines. It was also the first to expose soldiers to poison gas and other new lethal military technologies.

The United States remained neutral at the outbreak of fighting but soon found its neutrality increasingly difficult to maintain as German submarines attacked commercial and passenger ships, including those carrying American passengers. It was also the first time a deadly disease known as the “Spanish flu” made its way into human circulation, killing millions worldwide.

2. World War II

The world fought World War II between the Allied powers (the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). This was the deadliest global conflict in history, resulting in the deaths of 60-80 million people.

This new war merged in the minds of those who served with memories from the Great Depression and helped give rise to a generation that came to be known as “the greatest generation.” This generation understood that economic difficulties in the past had contributed to the appeal of violent dictatorships, and they feared repeating this history.

Domestically, the war changed the United States forever. The nation’s factories shifted to making weapons, and the government implemented rationing of sugar, oil, shoes, and other items. Scientific advances such as radar, improved depth charges, and long range bombers gave the Allied forces an advantage; medical researchers produced drugs including streptomycin that eradicated tuberculosis.

3. The Cold War

The end of World War II created a new global power struggle—the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union had fought together to defeat the Axis powers, but their partnership turned into competition. Fear of a nuclear war prevented direct conflict between the superpowers, but the two supported opposing nations and sought to spread their ideologies throughout the world.

The Marshall Plan brought American economic influence to western Europe, while the Soviets installed openly communist governments in eastern European countries. In the US, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) conducted a series of hearings to uncover communist subversion and blacklisted hundreds of writers, directors, and actors from Hollywood. The indecisive Korean War in 1950 and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49 further fueled the Cold War.

4. The Space Race

The Space Race was the 20th Century competition between Cold War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve supremacy in spaceflight capability. It spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, unmanned space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human space flight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.

The US obtained a head start by recruiting European experts in rocket technology, including Wernher von Braun – a former member of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). However, it was not until 1962 that President John F Kennedy promised to put a man on the Moon.

Ultimately, the US succeeded in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon for the first time. But the legacy of the Space Race extends far beyond its climactic ending in 1968.

5. The Vietnam War

The war in Vietnam was fought between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam. The North wanted to impose a communist regime that resembled those in the Soviet Union and China, while the South hoped to preserve a capitalist government aligned with the United States.

The American military responded to the Communist threat by bombing South Vietnam. This caused immense damage to the country’s infrastructure, and it left huge craters in rice paddies and hillsides.

In the end, however, the impact of the war on the world was minimal. The United States’s credibility as the defender of the liberal international order remained intact, and the domino theory never came true (although Communist governments did come to power in Laos and Cambodia). The American economy suffered, and its military was demoralized.

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