The 1950s laid the foundation for many of the political crises threatening the world today. Read on to know more about the major political events of this eventful decade.
Imagine a time when the biggest, bloodiest war in human history had just ended. One of the most infamous dictators in history had admitted defeat and committed suicide. The largest genocide in history had been discovered, the guilty charged, and punished accordingly. Imperialism was on its way out, sporting grim gashes and limp limbs.
Although this may sound peaceful, the 1950s were one of the most turbulent decades in global politics, containing some seminal political events.
The 1950s saw the rise of global tensions due to cold war, and the world was cleft into two political, administrative and ideological halves — capitalism, espoused by the US, and communism, adopted by the Soviet Union, or USSR. This also gave rise to a third group of non-aligned countries. The new politics during the 1950s were largely determined by the relations between the US and the USSR, and the changing political dynamics due to an increasing number of countries gaining independence from their imperial rulers
One of the first major wars since the Second World War, the Korean War put the conflict between capitalism and communism into sharp relief by pitting the North and South halves of Korea, communist and capitalist respectively, against each other. The USA backed the Southern half openly, sending its army into the battlefield under the aegis of the UN; the US forces alone outnumbered the North Korean army. The North Koreans were aided by China, who provided the bulk of the united communist armies, and the USSR.
The South Korean army successfully defended their territory against the invading Northern forces, although the military engagement failed to produce peace. The political situation in both the halves of Korea continued to be volatile for the years following the war, and the two countries remain at war with each other, not having signed an official peace treaty in spite of a ceasefire. North Korea has since gone on to become a nuclear state, ringing bells in the corridors of the decision-makers of global peacekeeping.
One of the most infamous and universally condemned military engagements in modern history was the USA’s ill-fated foray into Vietnam. Seeing a chance to prevent the spread of communism, the US backed the democratic South Vietnam against the communistic North.
Communism won this round, with the Ho Chi Minh-led North Vietnamese Viet Cong, running riot among the Southern forces.
However, despite its military failure the Americans’ aim of preventing the spread of communism was successful, as other South Asian countries chose to stay in the good books of the US by allowing the spread of capitalism, rather than risk military action from the mighty American army.
In response to NATO’s inclusion of West Germany, a group of Eastern European communist countries formed the Warsaw Treaty Organization of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, also known as the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense treaty to negate the West’s advancing power in Central Europe. The Warsaw Pact was the most important Cold War treaty between communistic countries, since the member countries had borders (Iron Curtain) with West-aligned countries in Europe.
The members in the Warsaw Pact were the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. After the Sino-Soviet Split in 1961, Albania aligned with China, and officially withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in 1968.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began as a student demonstration, and quickly spread across Hungary. Although the demonstrators and the Soviet administrators tried to work out the protestor’s demands, the Russian Politburo reversed its decision and decided to quell the rebellion with force. Approximately 2500 Hungarians and 700 Russian soldiers lost their lives in the ensuing violent clashes. Although the Hungarian Revolution was crushed in just days — the revolution lasted from October 23 to November 10 — and didn’t receive extensive media coverage in the West, it loosened the Iron Curtain and was instrumental in the eventual division of the Soviet Union.
With the world divided between groups of nations siding with either the US or the Soviet Union, there emerged a group of nations, led by India, Egypt and Yugoslavia, that held no formal alignment towards any group. The NAM currently has 120 members, mainly including ‘developing’ countries.
The Threat of Nuclear Fusion
Following the WWII, both the US and the USSR had carried on research upon nuclear fusion, or thermonuclear weapons. After the first Soviet thermonuclear weapons test in 1949, numerous series of fusion weapons were tested by the US, including the ‘Operation Ivy’ series and ‘Operation Castle’ series.
The threat of the new weapons, which were much more destructive than nuclear fission weapons, introduced for the first time a real possibility of the entire world being destroyed by man-made weapons. Before the research into thermonuclear weapons, even the most powerful weapons — nuclear fission weapons — were only capable of destruction on a local scale. Fusion weapons increased the possible scale of destruction exponentially.
Thermonuclear weapons reached their pinnacle with the Soviet Tsar Bomba test in 1961, which had a yield of 57 megatons of TNT, more than three times the most powerful fusion weapon produced by the USA, and more than two thousand times the yield of the atomic bomb deployed over Nagasaki.
George VI, King of the United Kingdom, died in 1952, and was replaced by his elder daughter, Elizabeth II. As of 2012, Elizabeth II is the second longest serving monarch in the history of the United Kingdom, behind Queen Victoria, who ruled for 63 years.
Leopold III, King of the Belgians, abdicated in favor his 21-year old son Baudouin (‘Boudewijn’ in French form) in 1951. Baudouin ruled Belgium until his death in 1993.
Around the same time, Sweden’s monarchy too changed. Gustaf V handed the reins to his son, Gustav VI Adolf, in 1950. He was 67 years old at the time of his accession and ruled until 1973.
Decolonization of Africa
By the 20th century, a majority of African countries (all but Ethiopia and Liberia) were ruled by European nations. The 1950s saw the start of the decolonization of African countries. The first to gain independence (except Egypt in 1922) was Libya, in 1951. Other Saharan (North African) states soon followed suit, and Ghana became the first independent sub-Saharan country in 1957.
In the first presidential elections of the decade, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the President of the United States in 1952, replacing Harry Truman. Eisenhower was reelected in 1956, eventually being replaced by John F. Kennedy in 1961 (1960 elections).
The 22nd Amendment
The 22nd Amendment, passed in 1951, legally restricted a President to two terms in office.
There had been an informal custom in the US that a president should only serve for two terms. The 22nd amendment was passed after, and in response to, Franklin Delano Roosevelt getting elected for the third time in a row. He won the presidential elections in 1932, 1936 and 1940.
FDR, who served for two terms and died in the middle of the third, remains the only president to have served more than two terms in office (which consequently also made Eleanor Roosevelt the longest-serving First Lady in the history of the US).
After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953, and Georgy Malenkov became Premier. Malenkov was replaced on Khrushchev’s orders in 1955 by Nicolai Bulganin, who was replaced in 1958 by Khrushchev himself. Khrushchev was removed from his post in 1964. He is known for his — relatively — liberal views on communism (de-Stalinization) and his backing of the Soviet Space Program. The first artificial satellite in the world, Sputnik 1, was launched during Khrushchev’s administration.
British Prime Ministers
Sir Winston Churchill was elected as Prime Minister in 1951, taking over from Clement Attlee. He was replaced by Sir Anthony Eden in 1955. Eden was replaced by Harold Macmillan in 1957. Macmillan served till 1963.
Hawaii and Alaska Inducted Into the USA
Alaska was bought by the USA from Russia in 1867, and was governed as a district. After gold rushes in northwestern North America, Alaska was incorporated as a US territory in 1912 and gained statehood in 1959.
Hawaii was a kingdom until 1887, when the reigning king Kalakaua signed the Constitution of Hawaii, drastically reducing the extent of the king’s power. Two years after Kalakaua’s death in 1891, his sister (having inherited the throne) proposed a new constitution. However, she was overthrown in the same year and a provisional government remained in power for the next five years. In 1898, Hawaii was made a US territory, and granted statehood in 1959.
The Kitchen Debate
At the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, then US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met informally. The undiplomatic, informal conversation between the two is known as the Kitchen Debate, since it took place in the kitchen of a specially constructed cheap house, built to display the affordability of housing in capitalist states. Although the meeting had little effect on the political tension between the countries, it is said to have convinced Khrushchev to back John F. Kennedy in the 1960 elections, since he felt Kennedy would be an easier opponent to encounter than Nixon. Khrushchev indeed didn’t have to deal with Nixon, since by the time Nixon became president in 1969, Khrushchev had already been replaced as the Soviet Premier and First Secretary.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 organized the disparate statutes previously applicable to issues relating to immigration and US citizenship, and molded them into the first proper Immigration Act. The Act is also called the McCarran-Walter Act.
Segregationist Laws passed in South Africa
The Apartheid in South Africa was further enhanced by the introduction of numerous laws, such as
The Immorality Act: Banned extramarital sex between a white and a non-white person.
The Population Registeration Act: Forced the population to be classified as Black, White, or Colored. The whites were given higher status in society, administration, political and the legal system.
The Group Areas Act: Granted sections of a city to be used by a particular race. The non-whites often had to live in small, congested areas far from work, while the whites enjoyed the benefit of the best living sections. The non-whites had to apply for a ‘pass book’ to enter the white zones.
The Bantu Education Act: Forcibly separated educational facilities on all levels, including universities, on the basis of race.
Desegregation in the USA
While the blacks in South Africa were suffering under the Apartheid rule, the winds of desegregation had begun to blow in America. A 1954 case,Brown v. Board of Education, overturned previous norms by declaring that separate facilities for whites and blacks are inherently unequal. This, combined with a case in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the National Guard accompanied nine black students — called the Little Rock Nine — to a recently desegregated school and remained in the school for a year for the black students’ protection, helped the Civil Rights Movement in America gather pace.
The Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959 in an armed movement led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara. The government put together by Castro was the first communist government in the Western hemisphere, and its close geographical proximity to the USA would go on to cause severe international issues in the coming decades.
In 1955, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan signed a treaty known as the Middle East Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, or the Baghdad Pact, in order to forge a US-aligned bloc of middle eastern countries close to the Soviet Union. When the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the new government became non-aligned. The Baghdad pact fell apart in the seventies, after the USSR established close political relations with countries south of the members of the Baghdad Pact, negating the Pact’s purpose to prevent southward expansion of the Soviet Union.
Liberation of Japan
Japan had been defeated in WWII under royal rule and was consequently occupied by the US. The US had a notable say in drafting Japan’s new, democratic constitution. This included the disarmament clause, which prevented Japan from fielding an army. Emperor Hirohito, who had led Japan’s military actions in WWII, also helped usher in the new era of economic progress and social reforms. By the end of Hirohito’s reign in 1989, Japan had become the second largest economy in the world. Japan is still one of the largest economies in the world, with a massive share in a wide range of industries ranging from automobiles to mobile phones.
Incorporation of Tibet
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) incorporated Tibet in 1950. During the 1959 uprising in Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India (Dharamshala), souring relations between India and China. Tibet has remained a contentious region; although Tibet is universally recognized as a part of China, the 14th Dalai Lama has set up a Central Tibetan Administration in India and aims to free Tibet, and there are occasional protests in the West over China’s occupation of TIbet.
Founding of the European Communities
The precursor of the European Union, the European Communities, was founded in 1957. The founder members of the EC include West Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy. The United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland joined in 1973, Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986. The European Communities wasn’t a single entity, but a conglomerate of three working towards similar ends with the same set of rules — European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom).
Constitution of India
Early in 1950 (January 26), the Indian constitution came into effect (India had gained independence from British rule in 1947, and the constitution had been adopted in 1949), creating the Republic of India, which replaced the Union of India.
Israeli ‘Law of Return’
The newly-formed (1948) Jewish state Israel passed a law granting any Jew automatic citizenship after immigrating into Israel. This spurred Jewish communities in neighboring Arab states to emigrate to Israel.
Britain, France, and the United States signed a Tripartite Declaration in 1950 for immediate action if Israel’s frontiers were violated. In response, five Arab League Nations signed a security pact, denying the use of the Suez Canal by Israel. The tripartite declaration stated that the three nations were opposed to the idea of an arms race, but after the Soviet Union started supplying arms and ammo to Egypt, France broke the declaration by supplying Israel with the same.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a highly influential figure in 1950s politics. His vision of Pan-Arabism brought him into conflict with Britain and France. Nasser intended to nationalize the Suez canal by paying off the shareholders, prominently Britain and France, and using the profits for construction of the Aswan dam on the Nile river. Nasser’s popularity in the Arab World, his insistence on staying non-aligned in the Cold War, and arms deal with the Soviet Union (Czech arms deal) put him at crossroads with Britain and France’s West-aligned interests in the Middle East.
Nasser nationalized the crucial Suez canal on July 26, 1956 and immediately prohibited Israel’s usage of the same, in addition to blocking the naval routes either side of the Sinai peninsula. This left Israel with only one sea route: the Mediterranean. In response to the nationalization of Suez, Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula on October 29, 1956, and captured Suez. On November 1, British and French air raids on Egypt debilitated the Egyptian forces by a great degree. Nasser himself didn’t believe that Egypt could repel the three-pronged invasion. Fortunately for him, diplomacy from the UN and the USA convinced Britain and France to withdraw their forces. The British and French withdrew by December, and Israel by March 1957.
A month after Israel’s withdrawal, the canal was reopened. In retaliation, Nasser advised Arab nations to reduce their supply of oil to Western Europe, i.e., primarily Britain and France. The apparent ‘victory’ for Nasser (because Britain, France and Israel had been forced to retreat) elevated his status among the Arab World. It also set the trend of oil-producing Middle East countries threatening to price out Western nations if not politically appeased.
Establishment of Fatah
Yasser Arafat led the foundation of Palestinian political party Fatah (or Fateh) in 1959. The full name of the organization is harakat al-tahrir al-watani al-filastini.
Fatah was created from Palestinian nationalists, led by the charismatic Arafat, who became almost synonymous with much of the organization’s activities. Fatah was involved in several controversial events, such as the battle of Karameh and the Black September aggression against Jordan. Fatah currently controls the West Bank.
The 1950s were far from the blissful decade the world had been hoping for. The political events of this decade resulted in the worsening of the Cold War, increased tensions in the Middle East (a condition still not remedied), but in the ‘win’ column, heralded the emergence of the American Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King, Jr., the rise of Japan from the ashes of the Second World War, and the independence and consolidation of several new countries, proudly celebrating liberty and freedom.