20th-century hero: the transistor

One World Divisible
September 15, 2000

David Reynolds's magnum opus globatus is rich in self-questioning exam questions. "From an icon of division and destruction to an icon of connection and creativity. Is that how we should see the global transition?" His answers are a crash course in crisp complexity. Reynolds is an adept of Einstein's dictum that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. "We live in a world in which more people are more conscious of its interrelation - in economics, communications, or the environment. But globalisation has also made people more conscious of divisions. Thanks to television, we are aware as never before, for instance, of the varieties of wealth and poverty around the world. The '20:80' world is not new, but it is news. Often, the local has been asserted, even created, in antithesis to the global - be it nations out of empires, black against white, heritage versus consumerism, or Islamic values in the teeth of westernisation. More than ever, this is one world; more than ever, it is divisible."

One World Divisible is the first in a multi-volume series titled The Global Century. It has many virtues, but its greatest achievement is to justify that remit. For the Anglo-Saxon or even the European reader, this is global history with the gloves off. The preliminary orientation to the scope and stakes of the second world war gives some indication of what is to come. Reynolds slices that gargantuan conflict into three epic struggles: the first between Germany and Russia over living space in Eastern Europe, settled savagely by the Red Army for an exact half-century; the second for mastery of China, involving Japan, the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese communists, inconclusive then, but resolved eventually and as it seems perpetually in favour of the last; the third what the Japanese call the Pacific war (as distinct from the Greater East Asian war centred on China), a war won decisively by the Americans, over-mighty yet ever anxious about the succession. Such a characterisation is a far cry from the authorised version, Dunkirk to D-Day via Alamein and Anzio, but it is just. Unpalatable as it may be, saving Private Ryan was a sideshow.

Similarly, Reynolds is not obsessed by the cold war (at any rate not as conventionally treated, as a kind of proscenium on which a familiar cast of carpenters and kings may strut), nor transfixed by the atomic bomb. Both are woven into this world, but the perspective has shifted, so that, for example, "the collapse of communism was also a crisis of faith. In that sense, it also fits into another global pattern, namely the erosion of structures of intellectual authority. Communism survived mainly by repression. But it was also sustained, certainly in early postwar Europe, by belief in the utopia it proclaimed and by the practical changes it brought to newly urbanised peasants. The loss of faith came abruptly, with Hungary in 1956, but the faith had once been real. Likewise, Mao's Great Leap Forward and Pol Pot's instant revolution were animated not merely by paranoid politics but also by social utopianism."

As for the bomb, Reynolds plainly believes that "the nuclear age" has been oversold. He urges a shift of emphasis from the atomic to the electronic and the genetic. Perhaps surprisingly, this emerges as one of his principal themes, argued with a passionate conviction that will not be gainsaid. His book opens, not with mushroom clouds, but with radio waves - Radio Detection and Ranging (Radar) - the real winning weapon. For this author, the bomb was a blind, but a spectacular one. "The world war had ended with an atomic bang, not an electronic whimper." Periodically thereafter he analyses the nexus between big science and high politics, adopting and adapting the sonorous pronouncement of the big scientist Alvin Weinberg:

"When history looks at the 20th century... she will find in the monuments of big science symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages" - which is very effective. And if the book has a hero, it is not one of the usual suspects but rather the humble transistor, the miniature Stakhanovite of the electrified era.

One World Divisible is spirited - a long book but a short read - and proffered with becoming modesty as the tracing of "one white, male, middle-aged, English historian". This is a common species among academic authors, to say nothing of reviewers, but Reynolds is in fact a rarer bird. One of his rivals in the global-century stakes is Eric Hobsbawm (the object of a slighting reference here). Hobsbawm is a natural cosmopolitan, by birth and transplantation and serial education; a participant observer of his own time. Part of the appeal of his Age of Extremes (1994) is precisely that his story makes history. Reynolds by contrast is a cosmopolitan by design, eager but less engage, a pilgrim seeking first the West (in the shape of the United States, of which he drank deep) and more recently the East (in the shape of Indonesia and Japan); a voyager, then an active learner, earthed, networked and highly tuned. The stretch of his sympathy and the pattern of his observation owe a lot to those voyages, it appears, giving meaning to things (the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen, in Beijing; the land of the pure, Pakistan, the slogan of the Muslim League in India) or to language itself ( maika, maicon [ pyuta ] - the "mai" words of Japanese "hardware individualism").

Epistemologically estranged though they may be, Reynolds bears interesting comparison with Hobsbawm, especially in the most unlikely places. Both square up to post-modern architecture, for example. If Reynolds has a model, however, it is Paul Kennedy, inspirer of The Global Century series and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). One World Divisible , a thicker history of a shorter span, triumphantly matches Kennedy's range and flavour. His market is wide open. Big history for a new century.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

One World Divisible: A Global History since 1945

Author - David Reynolds
ISBN - 0 7139 9461 4
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 861

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