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Clock The 20th Century: One Defining Moment?

FDU faculty ponder the most pivotal events
of the last 100 years

While alumnus Todd Nickerson gathered predictions for the future (see “Millennium V.I.P.s”), FDU Magazine asked faculty to reflect on the past and select the events that defined the 20th century.

“With such a busy and important century as this has been, that is a tough order.”
— Richard Ottaway

Robert DeFilippis
Associate Professor of Accounting;
Director of 150-Hour Accounting and Taxation Programs

Living in the second half of the 20th century obviously causes one to focus more on the events of the last five decades. However, in order to identify the most significant event of the century, one must really step back and look at the big picture of the total 100 years.

In my opinion, World War II is the event that has had the most profound effect on the United States and the world. Civilization as we know it would be very different today if the Allied Forces had not been victorious. The world would be significantly at variance with what we are today. I do not believe that we would be the leader of the free world, the role we have played for the past 50 years.

Gloria Dyer
Professor of Biological Sciences; Director of Allied Health Sciences,
Florham-Madison Campus

In spite of all the magnificent advances in science and biology seen in the 1900s, I would have to choose 1962 as the century’s defining year, and Rachel Carson as the defining figure. In her book, Silent Spring, Carson studied the new pesticides in use, looked at some of their effects and called for a ban on harmful pesticides and careful use of all pesticides.

“Progress at any cost was seen to carry a heavy
price tag.”
— Gloria Dyer

To set her actions in a cultural perspective, America at the middle of the century did not look kindly on “whistle-blowers” (witness the Vietnam demonstrations); there were very few women in the workforce, let alone women scientists; and “Progress” was almost a deity. Carson had a strong belief based on facts and great courage to make her statement. The establishment tried to discredit her in every way possible. They attacked her scientific credentials, but her scientific conclusions were impeccable and withstood the onslaught.

As a result of her book and the controversy it aroused, people began to look beyond the pesticide issue to other areas of environmental degradation. Humankind’s ecological perspective of 200 years was changed. Progress at any cost was seen to carry a heavy price tag.

As we enter the 21st century, we only are beginning to appreciate the tremendous economic value of our ecosystems and biodiversity. We only are beginning to understand how we can have progress within a healthy ecosystem. We have yet to understand that environmental and social issues are intertwined, and that universities must prepare students in all disciplines to handle the complex problems at hand. It was Rachel Carson who focused this century’s legacy for men and women of future centuries.

Thomas Kaplan
Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies

I believe the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945, were perhaps the most pivotal events, shaping numerous other issues over the past 50 years. Consider the following:

Mushroom Cloud
  • The use of the atomic bomb certainly hastened the end of World War II and eliminated the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Japan. It also changed forever how we perceive war.
  • The fact that the U.S. remains alone in having used the atomic bomb and the impact of the post-WWII arms race — first between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. and now involving many nations.
  • The Cold War and its effects on political and economic development throughout the world.
  • The U.S. occupation and rebuilding of Japan and the nature of U.S. economic competition with Japan and other nations in the last half of the 20th century.
  • The position of the U.S. as the most powerful economic and military nation in the world and everything — good and bad — that results from this role.

Gertrude Levine
Professor of Computer Science; Chair of Computer Science and Information Systems Department, Teaneck-Hackensack Campus

What is the most pivotal event of the 20th century? Surely any choice is subjective. The assassination [of the Archduke Ferdinand] at Sarajevo in 1914, the dropping of the atom bomb at Hiroshima in 1945; these events altered not only the course of history but also human perspectives.

Lunar Landing

As a computer science professional, however, I am best informed on the effect of computers on civilization. Consider those portions of the economy — the space industry, for example — that have been enabled by computers. Others, such as medicine, printing, animation, accounting, architecture and manufacturing, have been entirely transformed. The resultant benefit in productivity and capability has been a boost to Western economies. Communication has replaced transportation in many areas, including teleconferencing and distance learning.

Computers have penetrated homes as well — appliances, computer-based entertainment, the Internet, e-mail and chat rooms have increased literacy and involvement, particularly where they have replaced the passivity of television. Sales and marketing are being transformed.

Yes, there are negative influences, such as loss of privacy and growth of complexity. Interacting with others chiefly through computers will surely have negative social results. Still, all developments have undesirable side effects.

The computer revolution has been the result of the cooperative efforts of many people, and choosing one significant development is difficult. I opt for the development of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1954.

Lois Gordon
Professor of English, Teaneck-Hackensack Campus

Lois Gordon is co-author
of an extensive chronicle of important moments of the
20th century.

Richard Ottaway
Professor of Management

With the end of the millennium in sight, there is a rush of efforts to look ahead, as Todd Nickerson has done so creatively, and to look back. Here, several of us have been asked to look back and make a case for our selection of the most pivotal event of the 20th century. With such a busy and important century as this has been, that is a tough order.

I pick World War II, which I hope qualifies as an event. Samuel Huntington [professor of international relations at Harvard University] calls it the end of European civil wars. He points out that the wars in Europe had been about national boundaries, economic resources and who is going to rule what. They [the European nations] all had one religion and mostly one set of cultural values. World War II ended that, and Huntington predicted that current and future wars will be clashes of civilizations based on religious and cultural differences. So far, he appears to be correct.

Secondly, that war brought colonialism to an end. Garry Wills [commentator, writer and history professor at Northwestern University] points out that, at the beginning of the century, Great Britain had the most extensive empire in history. France’s empire actually included more of Africa than Britain’s. In 1900, there were 50 nations. In the 20 years following the war, 100 nations were born out of the colonies.

And thirdly, the war brought the nuclear age. The atomic bomb gave a new dimension to international politics. The Cold War was based directly on the bomb. Possession of the bomb became the coveted badge of national “adulthood.” NATO is a child of the Cold War. Its use of force in Kosovo may be an omen of the future. Bomb-toting nations may create regional peace-keeping bodies like NATO, which could usurp the primacy of the United Nations as the peacekeeping agency for the world and produce further fragmentation of the global community.

William Roberts
Professor of Social Sciences;
Director of the Public Administration Institute

The pivotal and defining event of the 20th century was the First World War. Out of that brutal four-year conflict came events and ideas that were to define geopolitics, economics and many of the social concepts of the rest of the era. Firstly, this war was fought on a scale unknown in previous history and ended the old world order. Four major and ancient empires — the Russian, Austrian, German and Ottoman — disappeared forever, and were replaced by radically different regimes. In particular, the emerging fascist and communist states were to dominate global history until the middle and the end of the age, respectively. Fascism, especially in its form of Nazism, was in so many ways the product of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Thus, World War II, the Holocaust and all other such unspeakable consequences of that period can be traced clearly back to the earlier conflict. Also, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the resultant communization of half of the globe would not have occurred but for World War I.

“World War I — ‘the war to end all wars,’ as it was known — both began and defined our era.”
— William Roberts

On a technological level, during World War I, mechanized and air warfare appeared for the first time, as did chemical warfare and the modern use and methodology of wartime propaganda. Also, there were major definitive social and economic consequences. Because of the tragic loss of millions of males, the role of women in the West was to be altered irrevocably. Women entered into a broader labor market, filling the jobs that had been reserved for males, while gaining social mobility and freedom. At the end of the war, they were able to make renewed and more successful demands for political rights.

The devastation caused by the conflict also altered many of the world’s major economies, with New York replacing London as the global financial capital. At the same time, many of the world’s leading industrial powers were forced to rebuild. Moreover, and quite importantly, the United States was brought further into its developing 20th-century role of global dominance, while other empires, in particular the British and the French, saw the first signs of their demise. From these latter consequences would come the significant nationalistic and anticolonial movements of the century, especially in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Thus, this tragic, yet seminal event, World War I — “the war to end all wars,” as it was known — can be considered the major factor in the development of the century. It both began and defined our era.

Atomic Warhead

Neil Salzman
Professor of Political Science

The Second World War was the decisive turning point of this century. No aspect of the human condition or society remained unchanged in the aftermath of those tragic sacrifices and catastrophes that we name collectively World War II. The Russians gave it another name, The Second Great Fatherland War, to recognize their 20 million dead.

Fascism and its many varieties of militaristic nationalism challenged the fate of the planet and sought to replace parliamentary democracy and Stalin’s communism with the worship of the state, the nation, the race and the führer. Had the fascist Axis powers won, the rest of the century would be unrecognizable to today’s survivors. Much of our vocabulary, consciousness and day-to-day existence would be fundamentally different. The master-slave millennia would have been perpetuated into the “thousand-year reich” promised by Hitler.

World War II led inevitably to the disintegration of the European colonial empires in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. An Axis victory would have consolidated new and even more repressive empires worldwide, based on principles of racial supremacy and the subordination of “lesser” peoples.

Writing in the 1950s, the French historian Raymond Aaron called this “A Century of Total War.” He was suggesting the pervasiveness of the impact of warfare on the entire human family. It was qualitatively a warfare hitherto unknown in the human experience, even before the atomic bomb. The battlefront had become inconceivable without the home front and the industrial front. Men predominated in the former, and women, more and more, replaced the scarce men in critical roles in the factory and economy. Never again would the conventional family and the work of women be the same.

We are just months from a new millennium. U.N. and NATO forces are painstakingly trying to solidify a transition to peace in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, and for the first time in modern history a war was undertaken to save a civilian population from the genocidal predations of a fascist, nationalist, military dictatorship within its own sovereign territory. Fascist nationalism is still a threat, but the lessons of the Second World War are still with us and will hopefully continue to shape our responses to such threats.

K. Paul Yoon
Professor of Information Systems and Sciences;
Chair of Management, Marketing, Information Systems and Sciences Department

What is the greatest invention of the 20th century? The air conditioner. The unusually hot and humid weather on July 6, 1999, made every home, office and store turn their air-conditioning (AC) units to the maximum level. This surge of electric consumption in the Teaneck area caused power supply brownouts. Expecting a major power shortage and the lack of cool air in classrooms, the Provost’s Office ordered the campus closed. I was glad that my first Summer Session III class was canceled because I don’t know how to keep students alert in such oppressive heat.

“Human beings in the 20th century have enjoyed incomparably comfortable lives due to great inventions.”
— K. Paul Yoon

It was June 1975 when I arrived in the United States for graduate study. Summers in Kansas are very hot. However, I needed a thick blanket at night to cover my body in the fully air-conditioned college dorm. Today, we cannot imagine offices, factories, cars, airplanes, movie theaters shopping malls, etc., without air conditioning. Retirees from New Jersey are happy to settle in the tropical and desert regions which owe their comfortableness to air conditioners.

Human beings in the 20th century have enjoyed incomparably comfortable lives due to great inventions such as radios (1920), refrigerators (1920s), color movies (1939), televisions (1939), microwave ovens (1945), VCRs (1975) and personal computers (1980s). However, we cannot fully appreciate these luxuries in any hot environment without AC. As Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp (1879) gave light to 19th-century people, Willis Carrier’s AC (1914) rendered ultimate comfort to the 20th-century citizen.

Helen Brudner
Professor of History and Political Science;
Associate Director and Coordinator of Graduate Programs for the School of
Political and International Studies,
Teaneck-Hackensack Campus

Note: Helen Brudner expanded her scope beyond the confines of the 20th century and found evidence for a very promising future.

The second millennium is marked by a continuing effort to guarantee improvements in the quality of life. Whether it was the Magna Carta in 1215, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance or democracy, individuals emerged from each period feeling significant, valuable and capable of creating a new and brilliant world.

Modern media reports of carnage, violence and war against the environment and ourselves would seem to decry any trend toward progress. However, it is best to remember that humankind is still a work in progress, and that progress in the last 1,000 years has been achieved in spite of catastrophic events.

For example:

In the last 300 years, the idea that one human had the right to own and exploit another human has been disavowed. During the last century, the unique talents, creativity and energy of women have come to be recognized as significant and necessary to the advancement of humanity.

Jobless Families

Fifty years ago at Nuremberg, after some of the darkest days of these 1,000 years, the world committed to the idea that no one can be allowed to commit crimes against humanity and go unpunished.

A quarter of a century ago, the Club of Rome, representing the world’s people, recognized the responsibility to provide food for those without access to it. Today, the concerned meet around the world to identify and solve the problems of society’s weakest, such as children and the handicapped, as well as those who have been deprived of equitable access to health care and education, and opportunities for work and leisure. It has become important to enable those who wish it, to make a scratch on the planet, so it will be known that they have been here.

The third millennium will inherit a universal Core of Human Standards, which may indeed herald the wonderful and exciting world so many have envisioned.

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