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World War 2 is the most significant event of the 20th Century. The list of ways in which it shaped the future of the world is endless and impossible to quantify. The consequences of the war are so instrumental to understanding the world we live in that we are likely still living in a time which will be referred to as the “Post-World War Era” if looked back upon by a distant posterity. The war did more than determine whether or not the German Nazis would be successful in their plans for a world-dominating “1,000 year reich” it provided economic growth that provided a more complete recovery from the international depression than any single piece of legislation, it transformed culture: opening the door further for women’s acceptance in the workplace and leading to the creation of new terms, namely genocide, and it set the stage for the next half century of relative peace as well as Cold War tensions, it also one of the greatest harbingers of innovation in human history, leading to new technologies such as early computers, pesticides and crop fertilizers, and a consumer-centric economy.
The mobilization required for the war effort was unlike anything before or since. “Use it – wear it – make due – or do without” became the slogan of the American homefront as workers were forced to ramp up production at the same time as shift industry to armaments, war planes, boats, tanks, and other vehicles, and ammunition. At the same time, the remaining workers at home had to fill in for those off fighting, leading to an increase in the amount of women in the workforce.
During the war, over 6.5 million women entered the workforce for the first time in the U.S. alone. Some 350,000 joined the Armed Forces, under the encouragement of the most active of all First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt. Women also filled in important industries that were vacated by men, notably including the aircraft industry. The industry went from employing under 1% women to a 65% majority by war’s end. This change was not sustainable enough to lead to women immediately entering the workforce on an equal footing with men, access to high-paying executive jobs, as well as others atop hierarchies that encourage disagreeableness as a helpful trait, was not there. But it was a turning point and made possible women’s acceptance in the workforce over the next few decades and the wages saved by women during the war years were a major reason for the housing boom of the 50’s which ushered in a slew of infrastructure projects in addition to vast new stretches of housing.
Another often forgotten side effect of the domestic effort was that it made a population of readers. According to Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic, over 122 million books were given away to American soldiers overseas. Prominent broadcaster, H.V. Kaltenborn told a skeptical 1944 audience “America’s publishers have cooperated in an experiment that will for the first time, make us a nation of readers.” He was right, the concept of reading was democratized and the shipments of tens of thousands at a time were reportedly outpaced by the reading pace of the men who otherwise would have had no book access.
War has proven countless times a potent catalyst of innovation and technological growth. Nowhere is this more easily observed than World War II, in which all of the top scientists of all of the leading technological powers of the world were working against each other to develop that which would give them a large enough advantage to declare victory. One of the most consequential innovations of this “race” are the pesticides and fertilizers used to fervent a “Green Revolution” of agricultural growth and productivity.
According to littlehistoryfarm.org, ten plants used to produce nitrogen for TNT during the war were converted to produce ammonia for fertilizer. This coupled with an incredible growth in the use of pesticides led to much greater crop yields and the ability to secure food for much of the developing populace of the world. Total expenditure of pesticides grew tenfold from 1945 to 1972. This enormous agricultural growth further fueled the move away from a largely agrarian economy to one more diverse and industrialized. Consumers were for the first time, bombarded by advertisements across different media platforms. For the first time, the average American had the resources and the access necessary to make true independent consumer decisions based off of value and interest. Eventually this led to a transformation of what was accepted identity, with all sorts of interests and activities facilitated and encouraged.
Less workers were needed to work farms and more were needed to occupy factory jobs and other new areas of production. This allowed economic metrics like GDP to skyrocket, in the U.S. the number climbed from $228 billion in 1945 all the way to just under $1.7 trillion in 1975. Prabhu Pingali argues in research titled Green Revolution: Impacts, limits, and the path ahead that “Although populations had more than doubled, the production of cereal crops more than tripled during this period, with only a 30% increase in land area cultivated.” This growth virtually eliminated Malthusian concerns and led to a drastic increase in leisure time in the civilized world.
WW2 also set up a whole new series of international disputes and problems that would take much of the century to solve. Under the Manhattan Project, the United States developed and deployed nuclear weapons, a weapon of immense destruction that the other powers of the world were sent into a scramble to catch up. Germany itself was divided amongst the Big 3 in the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union, as well as a smaller fourth zone for France. This as well as the fate of surrounding states previously occupied by the Nazis, especially those to the east in the Soviet sphere of influence. From the time of occupation: 1949, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, tensions fluctuated between periods of dangerous stalemate and thawed hostility. MAD or mutually-assured destruction, the principle that both ends of a nuclear conflict would decimate themselves in the case of conflict due to the potency of the weapons, ultimately prevented an outright conflict between the United States and Russia.
It did influence the domestic politics of both halves of the now divided German nation, creating a successful, prosperous, globally-linked Western Germany and the poverty-stricken, oppressed, alienated German Democratic Republic under communist influence in the East. This divided millions of people and had tons of consequences, West Germany became a haven for migrants of Turkish descent, the East Germans were homogenous by comparison and the wall was built to curb potential emigration.
Professor and clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson considers the Nuremberg Trials the most significant event of the 20th Century. The rationale is that the trials were the first time, we as a species have decided that there are things that are absolutely evil and cannot be explained away by ideology. Leila Nadya Sadat writes in The Nuremberg Trials: Seventy Years Later: “It may have been an American “show” in terms of the material support and size of the various participating prosecutorial teams; but it built upon decades of European thought which, following the failed experience of World War I, endeavored to fortify the emerging structure of international criminal law.”
The Nuremberg Trials were the first precedent of authority for the United Nations. The trials saw the prosecution of 24 Nazi figures, twelve of which received a death sentence. “For the first time in history, absolute rulers were brought to account before the law. There is no longer any state, or any ruler of any state, who can claim total immunity from the law. … The age of empires has passed.” said Nuremberg prosecutor, Whitney Harris. “At Nuremberg we put tyranny on trial.” The United Nations have been successful in providing a platform where representatives from all of the world can be seen and heard and on occasion, in intervening in domestic affairs as some type of common-bannered coalition. Of the 57 total, notable UN Operations include Post-9/11 Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda and terror organizations in the Middle East, as well as the force that defended South Korea during the Korean War.
France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy and other countries spent the early postwar years, recovering and debating the path forward. 39 million Europeans were killed in addition to nearly 10 million Asians massacred by the Japanese during the war and much property was destroyed after years of battles and bombings. It was a long and expensive recovery process and in the cases of the recipients of U.S. money via the Marshall Plan: Austria, France, Italy, and China, and then more substantially, Greece and Turkey, too difficult to accomplish alone. Much of the money was spent attempting to rebuild the armies of Western Germany, spending over $13 billion by the end of 1951.
The technological race that took place has since changed from the days in which the only major players were the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition to the recent return to prominence for Russia globally under Vladimir Putin, the scene has grown more complex with new major players and in the case of China, a major rival. This rivalry is further facilitated by a British invention of the war: the computer. The first computer was built in 1943, called Colossus, it was used to interpret enemy code. Advances on the computer have been made ever since and are one of, if not the most important invention in the history of the facilitation of information.
To conclude the essay, the consequences of World War 2 are wide-ranging and complicated. It influenced live of virtually everyone who lived through it and everyone after it. The war is simultaneously responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths, social opportunity for women, economic growth, countless technological innovations across all aspects of science, and the geopolitical scene of relative peace and cooperation we have today. It is the most important event in our recent history and it continues to define the trajectory of the human story. It seems that despite incomprehensible carnage and destruction, there are quite a few silver linings to the war, making the overall picture that much more complicated.
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