“Countless innovations in science, medicine and social organization grew out of the conflict.”
THE SECOND WORLD WAR was one of the most catastrophic events in human history. As armed forces swept from one end of the globe to the other, even those who weren’t caught up in the violence could see that something fundamental was being destroyed. “This war has no relation with the last one,” observed the wartime journalist Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London in 1940. “You have to understand that a world is dying.”
His words proved prophetic. Over the next five years at least 60 million people were killed, and millions more died of starvation and disease. Thousands of towns and cities in Europe and Asia were razed to the ground, and communities that had remained unchanged for hundreds of years were wiped out. The devastation was unlike anything the world has ever seen.
Yet surprisingly, not all of the changes brought by the war were so negative. Countless innovations in science, medicine and social organization grew out of the conflict. New philosophies and new moral movements were born of the tumult, even in regions far away from the fighting. In Latin America, for example, the beginnings of a democratic revolution took hold; and in Asia and Africa, colonial nations began to agitate for independence. In the years that followed, the whole world seemed to be inspired by wartime rhetoric about freedom and democracy.
Thus, while a world did indeed die during the Second World War, out of its ashes a new world was born. Here are some of the many aspects of life that were fundamentally transformed by the war:
The United Nations
During the Second World War, men and women from more than 20 nations fought side by side, while more than 50 other countries contributed in some way to the Allied war effort. In many ways, the victory in 1945 was a triumph of international cooperation. The United Nations was established in the spring of the war’s final year specifically to build on this spirit of brotherhood. As President Harry S. Truman told the first ever UN conference, “if we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.”
There had been similar international organizations before, but this was the first one that ever enjoyed the support of all the world’s most powerful nations together, including the United States. It was the experience of the war, with all its horror and camaraderie, that created such political will.
For similar reasons, the post-war period also saw the birth of several other global and regional institutions, like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the first steps towards today’s European Union.
The Cold War
One of the great tragedies of the 20th Century is that before the rubble could be cleared from the Second World War, the stage was being set for a potentially deadlier conflict, one that would be waged by the two mightiest of the Allied powers.
On one side was the Soviet Union, whose leader, Josef Stalin, was determined to push his influence as far across the world as possible. By 1945, the Soviet Union possessed the largest continental army the world has ever seen, which completely dominated the Eurasian landmass.
Then there was the United States, whose military dwarfed that of every other western power. America had several advantages over the Soviet Union. In 1945, it had a monopoly on the atom bomb. It was also rich: by the end of the war America produced half of the world’s total GDP.
Had these two superpowers reached an agreement, it’s possible that much of the violence that plagued the world over the next four decades could have been avoided. But the ideological differences between Soviet-style communism and American capitalism were simply too great to overcome. The resulting Cold War spawned dozens of small but bloody proxy wars in all corners of the globe, while keeping the planet’s population on the cusp of nuclear Armageddon for two generations.
Penicillin was discovered long before the Second World War, but for years it remained little more than a medical curiosity. This quickly changed once hostilities commenced. Understanding how important antibiotics could be in treating the sick and the wounded, British and American scientists pooled their knowledge — with one another, with pharmaceutical companies, and ultimately with the U.S. government. Washington poured millions of dollars into research, and later financed the construction of entire penicillin manufacturing plants.
In 1941, the commercial production of penicillin in the United States was exactly zero. By the middle of 1945, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 646 billion units of penicillin per month. The subsequent development of other breakthrough antibiotics, such as streptomycin, was also a consequence of such work. It was one of the most successful collaborations ever between government, science and big business. Since then, antibiotics has saved untold millions. And it was all made possible because of the Second World War.
An even greater triumph of international collaboration was the Allied nuclear program, known as the Manhattan Project. Between 1941 and 1945, hundreds of scientists and tens of thousands of support personnel worked on the construction of an atomic bomb. The total cost of the enterprise was almost $2 billion – an astonishing amount of money at the time, which was made even more remarkable by the fact that it was kept secret even from Congress.
When President Truman announced in August 1945 that America had succeeded in “harnessing the basic power of the universe,” the world looked on in disbelief. The implications of this new discovery were breathtaking. Nuclear power appeared inexhaustible, bringing the promise of an end to poverty and work. The New York Herald Tribune went so far as to claim that mankind was on the brink of “an earthly paradise.”
But alongside these fantasies were also feelings of dread. It was impossible to forget that the first use of this new power had not been to create Utopia, but to destroy an entire city at a single stroke. The world would never be the same again. “In an instant, without warning,” claimed Time magazine shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, “the present had become the unthinkable future.”
Computer technology, another game changer, also made several leaps as a result of the war. In 1941, Konrad Zuse built the world’s first programmable digital computer, the Z3, which was used by the German Aircraft Research Institute to perform complex calculations. In Britain, even more powerful computers were being pioneered to decipher encrypted German messages. The mathematician Alan Turing, regarded by some as the father of modern computing, was deeply involved in the design of such machines. Meanwhile, in the United States, scientists in Pennsylvania were working on the creation of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Its purpose? To make complicated artillery calculations.
Computers would certainly have been created in the end anyway, but the urgency of the war, and the willingness of governments to provide much needed funding, vastly accelerated their development.
In 1945, an American engineer named Percy Spencer happened to be visiting a lab where new compact radar equipment was being tested, when he noticed that the peanut bar in his pocket had begun to melt. The technology, known as cavity magnetrons, was the central component in Allied air-to-ground radar, which worked by producing microwaves. Curious to learn more, Spencer sent a boy out to buy a packet of corn. When he placed it near the magnetron, the corn began to pop. A follow-up experiment ended up with an egg exploding all over the face of one of the lab technicians. Unwittingly, the researchers had stumbled across one of the greatest domestic innovations of the 20th Century: the microwave oven. To this day, kitchen microwaves still use cavity magnetrons to cook our breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
The Women’s Movement
During the Second World War, the myth of the passive, home-bound woman was undermined almost everywhere. As the men were sent off to fight, women filled many of the jobs that had traditionally been reserved for males. Soon ‘Rosie the Riveter’ and thousands like her were hard at work in factories, munitions plants and shipyards, producing everything from tanks and machine guns to bombers and Liberty ships.
By war’s end, women had discovered a new-found confidence and millions clamoured for economic, political and social equality. It was a worldwide phenomenon. After in 1945, women were granted the vote for the first time in France, Italy, Belgium and Greece, as well as China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia. Women’s suffrage swept through Latin America also. In France, Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, a book that would become a bible of feminism in years to come.
When the men returned from overseas, many demanded their wives resume their pre-war status as homemakers. While many dutifully, even happily, obliged, the seeds of the modern women’s movement had been sown. A generation later they would bloom.
The Second World War also opened up new horizons for African-Americans. During the war, hundreds of thousands of black servicemen travelled abroad, where they witnessed different ways of life and new attitudes towards race. Back at home, an estimated 1.5 million blacks migrated within the United States in search of new jobs and new opportunities. Many left the segregated South for employment north of the old Mason Dixon Line. Their participation in the work force grew massively, as did their membership of unions and other political groups. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grew from just 50,000 members at the start of the war to 450,000 in 1945.
Like many other minority groups, African-Americans were keen to hold on to the advances they had won during the war.
“I do not believe that negroes will stand idly by and see their newly opened doors of economic opportunity closed in their faces,” wrote one black news columnist in 1945, especially after having fought “for democracy against fascism.”
It was this new self-confidence, fostered during the war, that would lay the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression, architects and urban planners envisioned a future world marked by new and modern cities. The destruction wrought by the Second World War allowed many to finally turn these dreams into reality. After 1945, planned neighbourhoods were springing up all across Europe, all with carefully zoned shopping and cultural areas.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American planners watched the progress with envy. “If the Blitz did it,” wrote social housing advocate Catherine Bauer towards the end of the war, “then that explains the secret guilty regret deep within many American liberals that we missed the experience.” She need not have worried. Before long, America too began rebuilding its inner cities along modernist lines.
Sadly, the post-war high rise boom failed to live up to the ideal that the many planners hoped. Most were built from cheap materials and soon fell into disrepair. New housing projects soon turned into urban ghettos marked by poverty and despair.
White Americans, meanwhile, fled the inner cities and used their newfound prosperity, itself a by-product of the war, to buy cheap, identical houses in ground-breaking developments like Levittown, Pennsylvania – the template for the modern American suburb. Suburbia, the paradigm of the middle class consumer, was also born as a consequence of the war.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
Britain may have won the Second World War, but in other ways, the United Kingdom was one of the conflict’s chief losers. Once the world’s greatest military and political power, by 1945, the country was virtually bankrupt, and unable to justify its vast empire either fiscally or morally. For the next two decades, Britain would be forced to watch as its former colonies left one by one.
Among the first to go was Palestine, which had been a British protectorate since the end of the First World War. Unfortunately, the territory was contested by two groups: Palestinian Arabs who had inhabited the region for centuries, and the Jewish Zionists who had been settling there since the late 19th Century.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, the exhausted British were keen to wash their hands of the brewing unrest in Palestine. London deferred the crisis to the United Nations to resolve. The UN eventually voted to award Europe’s Jews a portion of Palestine as a homeland. The memory of Nazi atrocities was an important factor in the vote; after all that Jews had suffered, many felt it was morally right to give them a homeland where they could at finally feel safe.
Arabs were incensed by the decision. In the words of one Arab historian, “[Palestinians] failed to see why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust.” Since then, the Arab-Israeli conflict has led to at least four major wars and a decades-long cycle of murderous violence with no end in sight.
Keith Lowe is the author of The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us, published by St Martin’s Press.