The Big Picture, A Half-Century Later

FIFTY years ago last Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland and set off a process which forever changed the world. On this semicentennial, it is useful to reflect on these changes, and especially on what they might portend for the next 50 years. Five such changes are of particular importance:

Role reversal of the principal belligerent. Enemies became allies, and allies became enemies. The Soviet Union became our main adversary, and Germany and Japan became key players in our anti-Soviet (and anti-Chinese) strategies. The US, which had made such strenuous efforts to lay waste Germany and Japan, lavished assistance on them and now stands back in awe of what it has wrought.

The cold war. During most of this half-century, the two nuclear superpowers went at each other in every way they could think of short of direct military action, and they did so on a world stage. It is not oversimplifying history to say that after World War II, the US and the USSR, each in its own way, set out to rule the world and after much effort and cost, each decided its reach had exceeded its grasp. Now each is reducing its foreign commitments.

The end of colonialism and the rise of nationalism. This redrew the political map of the world. It almost quadrupled the membership of the United Nations. It injected a new and emotional element into world politics. American and European statesmen are still not comfortable dealing with this. And US and European economists are still groping with how to deal with the seemingly endless and hopeless demands of third-world development.

Technology. This has given us the means both to blow up the world and to save it. So far we have done neither. But the pace of change is dizzying. Science moves faster than society or politics. Jet travel and instant communication mean that local problems which used to solve themselves because nobody knew about them now become crises. Who would have cared about Grenada in the 19th century? Global radio and television raise global expectations and also offer unprecedented opportunities for either thought control or public enlightenment.

Population. This is where the lag between technical progress and social adjustment to it is most disturbing. Technology has given us ways to keep babies from dying. It has also given us ways to keep babies from being born, but we have neither the political wit nor the social will to use them. Hence, the population explosion. When World War II began, there were not quite two-and-a-quarter billion people in the world. Global population reached 5 billion, more than double, by 1987. It is still growing.

This puts insupportable pressure on the environment through pollution, the destruction of forests, overfarming and overgrazing; on food supplies; and on social and political institutions through excessive urbanization. No country is adequately equipped to deal with these pressures, least of all third-world countries where pressures are most acute.

Now, after 50 years, we see developing with startling swiftness another fundamental change. This is the collapse of the Soviet system. The countries of Eastern Europe, which were aptly termed satellites under Stalin, have been told by Mikhail Gorbachev to do things in their own way. Poland and Hungary are rushing helter-skelter to do just that. In the USSR itself, times are difficult.

Mainly as a result of the misguided policies of the Reagan administration, the US no longer has the capacity for the world leadership which it once exercised. Once the world's biggest creditor, we are now the biggest debtor. The deficit in our national budget exceeds the whole gross national product of most countries and is financed in important part by borrowing from foreigners, including Germans and Japanese.

In 1947, when Secretary of State George Marshall proposed the European Recovery Program which came to bear his name, he included Eastern Europe. The Soviet bloc declined. Now when there is a further chance to influence change, President Bush is embarrassed because his cupboard is bare.

For all the cold war's bombast, dirty tricks, close encounters, and little wars by proxy, the superpowers never let it go big time. Now it's over, and our side won. We're broke. So are the Russians. The difference is that the Russians know it.

The superpowers (if we still are; maybe that label ought to pass to Japan and Germany) look like they may be on the way to defusing the Einsteinian legacy of the nuclear bomb. The Malthusian legacy of the population bomb could be more dangerous.

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