Visual History of the World




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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.



Trends in World Politics

SINCE 1945


After the dissolution of the anti-Hitler coalition in 1945, the Cold War between the superpower nations—the United States and the Soviet Union—defined international relations until 1989. Conflicts between the ideological and military systems of the superpowers split the world into hostile blocs of countries and hindered the functioning of the United Nations as an instrument of global peace. The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 ended the Cold War, but fundamentalist terror and the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons of mass destruction created new problems and fields of conflict.


The Cold War

1 View of a painted wall on the Eastern side
of the former Berlin Wall, 1990

After 1945, the European continent and virtually the entire world divided into the spheres of influence of the new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Millions of refugees, deportees, 2 prisoners of war, and concentration camp prisoners, referred to collectively as "displaced persons," presented postwar society with an integration problem.

Churchill, Roc evelt, and Stalin had already denned their claims in Europe in 1944. Following the war's end, the victors installed their political systems in the territories they controlled.

The division of Germany into four occupation zones prepared the way for the national partition into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the 3 German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949.

Parliamentarian democracy in the West opposed the dictatorial "peoples' democracies" in the East. In 1946 Churchill coined the term "Iron Curtain" to describe the unyielding separation between the Eastern and the Western Blocs. Europe was also economically divided.

Reconstruction in the West was supported by the 5 Marshall Plan; its counterpart in the eastern Bloc was the Soviet sponsored Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon).

The division into two hostile blocs affected the whole world. With the victory of the Communist party in China, the most populous country in the world became a member of the socialist camp.

2 Posters with photos of missing German
soldiers in the camp for those returning
home, Friedland, 1955

3 Marx, Engels, Lenin: poster for a
march in East Berlin, 1988

5 Train cars are delivered to the German
State Railway as part of the Marshall Plan,
November, 1948

The first "proxy war" between the East and the West broke out in 6 Korea in 1950, followed by later wars in 4 Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 almost resulted in nuclear war. During the period of detente in the 1970s, several control agreements were meant to curb armament on both sides. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) attempted to introduce a process of detente beginning in 1974 by addressing economic and human rights issues.

6 During the Korean War, US Marines keep
a watch on North Korean prisoners, 1950

4 Vietnam War: A civilian
shows the body of his child
to soldiers from the South



The Cuban Missile Crisis

The stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in October 1962.

 President Kennedy demanded the removal of the weapons. When First Secretary Khrushchev refused, the US imposed a naval blockade, in the direction of which Soviet ships carrying missile components continued, having already set sail from Russia.

At the last minute Khrushchev ordered the fleet to turn around and the missiles to be dismantled.

Khrushchev and the Cuban President
Fidel Castro in New York,
September 24, 1960


Cuban Missile Crisis


(October 1962), major confrontation that brought the United States and the Soviet Union close to war over the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.

Having promised in May 1960 to defend Cuba with Soviet arms, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev assumed that the United States would take no steps to prevent the installation of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Such missiles could hit much of the eastern United States within a few minutes if launched from Cuba. The United States learned in July 1962 that the Soviet Union had begun missile shipments to Cuba. By August 29 new military construction and the presence of Soviet technicians had been reported by U.S. U-2 spy planes flying over the island, and on October 14 the presence of a ballistic missile on a launching site was reported.

After carefully considering the alternatives of an immediate U.S. invasion of Cuba (or air strikes of the missile sites), a blockade of the island, or further diplomatic maneuvers, President John F. Kennedy decided to place a naval “quarantine,” or blockade, on Cuba to prevent further Soviet shipments of missiles. Kennedy announced the quarantine on October 22 and warned that U.S. forces would seize “offensive weapons and associated matériel” that Soviet vessels might attempt to deliver to Cuba. During the following days, Soviet ships bound for Cuba altered course away from the quarantined zone. As the two superpowers hovered close to the brink of nuclear war, messages were exchanged between Kennedy and Khrushchev amidst extreme tension on both sides. On October 28 Khrushchev capitulated, informing Kennedy that work on the missile sites would be halted and that the missiles already in Cuba would be returned to the Soviet Union. In return, Kennedy committed the United States never to invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly promised to withdraw the nuclear-armed missiles that the United States had stationed in Turkey in previous years. In the following weeks both superpowers began fulfilling their promises, and the crisis was over by late November. Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro, was infuriated by the Soviets’ retreat in the face of the U.S. ultimatum but was powerless to act.

The Cuban missile crisis marked the climax of an acutely antagonistic period in U.S.-Soviet relations. The crisis also marked the closest point that the world had ever come to global nuclear war. It is generally believed that the Soviets’ humiliation in Cuba played an important part in Khrushchev’s fall from power in October 1964 and in the Soviet Union’s determination to achieve, at the least, a nuclear parity with the United States.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The United Nations

The world community created the United Nations after World War II as an instrument to secure global peace. To this day, however, it remains dependent on the interests of the superpowers.

see also:

United Nations; United Nations member states


The United Nations organization emerged directly out of the military alliance against Germany. Initially, only countries that had declared war on the Third Reich by March 1, 1945, were eligible for membership, which allowed the admission of a large number of South American and Middle Eastern nations which had declared war on the Axis powers at the last moment. East and West Germany were not allowed to join until 1973.

The aims of the 7 United Nations since its founding on October 24,1945, have been to secure world peace and to promote international cooperation.

The UN's major organs are the General Assembly; the 8 Security Council, with permanent and changing members; the Secretariat; and the International Court of Justice.

7 United Nations Building,
New York, lit up for the 50th
anniversary of the founding
of the UN, 1995

8 Meeting of the UN Security Council in New York to discuss the
uprising in Hungary, November 1956

The East-West conflict, however, impeded the creation of a global system of peace. Unanimous decisions in the Security Council were repeatedly thwarted by use of the veto by one superpower or the other. The policy of detente at last led to joint treaties between the world powers, for example over the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

The nature of United Nations was altered by the decolonization process after World War II. The number of members tripled, and the issues to be dealt with included the question of how to integrate the new members into the UN and the global order. Many former colonies joined, reducing the dominance of the industrial countries. The superpowers therefore tried to enlist the support of the non-aligned states. The UN guidelines were adjusted to new political requirements.

Besides the protection of children (UNICEF), 10, 12 world cultural heritage (UNESCO), and 9 health (WHO), since the 1970s it has also been the United Nations' goal to reduce disparities between the North and South and to halt the overexploitation of natural resources.

The instruments for securing peace have changed since the 1960s.

Initially, the organization was limited to diplomatic means, but now it can also deploy armed 11 UN peacekeeping troops, which are recognizable by their blue helmets.

Despite some successes, the conflicts of interests of the member states that supply these troops have repeatedly hampered the ability of the United Nations to serve as "world police"—even after the end of the Cold War. Whether the United Nations can be made capable of meeting the new demands of the 21st century has been a subject of intense discussion within the world community.

9 Blood test results are examined as part of the campaign by the World Health Organization against glandular fever, Angola, 1959;
10 Stonehenge, England, given world cultural heritage status by UNESCO in 1986;
11 British peacekeeping troops from the United Nations in former Yugoslawia, 1995;
12 UNESCO helping illiterate people in Mexico, 1980

see also:
United Nations; United Nations member states



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