August 2017

Review: Toward a Global Civilization, Unit 5 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

Writing a comprehensive global history of the post-1945 world is a daunting task. Unit 5 “Toward a Global Civilization” of Jackson Spielvogel’s textbook World History: Modern Times grapples with this difficult assignment through five chapters, yet without much success.

by Milorad Lazic

Writing a comprehensive global history of the post-1945 world is a daunting task. Unit 5 (“Toward a Global Civilization”) of Jackson Spielvogel’s textbook World History: Modern Times grapples with this difficult assignment through five chapters, finding little success. The first chapter in the unit discusses the Cold War between 1945 and 1970, the following four chapters follow a regional rather than thematic approach (the contemporary Western world, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, and Asia and the Pacific), and the last chapter talks about the post-Cold War world and the challenges of the twenty first century. Spielvogel’s narrative is incoherent and poorly organized and his chronological, topical, and geographical approaches are methodologically problematic. “Toward a Global Civilization” offers bits and pieces of global history, but it fails short on showing connections between these different events and processes and how their mutual dynamics and interdependence shaped the world of today.[1]

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Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. Courtesy of The Daily Beast.

Moreover, Spielvogel’s interpretations are often outdated and unconvincing. For example, he writes that “communism did not develop deep roots among the peoples of Eastern Europe” (677). This notion of “captive nations” has been increasingly challenged in the recent historiography of communist Europe which has demonstrated that communist regimes did enjoy some sort of political legitimacy and popular support.[2] Also, casual statements such as “the United States dominated the art world after World War II” (713) are not only US-centric (a problem with many Cold War histories) but also demonstrate complete disregard for cultural production outside the US. Finally, when discussing the Middle East in an infographic titled “Connecting to the United States” (766), Spielvogel directly links terrorism in the US with Middle Eastern conflicts, completely neglecting the history of domestic terrorism or terrorist attacks that were connected to groups other than radical Islamists.

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The Oklahoma City Bombing. Courtesy of Time Magazine.

Spielvogel’s textbook is not only problematic because of these interpretations, but also because it ignores important events and the connections that exist between them. For example, in his decent treatment of the civil rights movement in the US, Spielvogel neglects the movement’s transnational and international dimension, something that has been convincingly demonstrated in a number of relatively recent works.[3] Also, Stalin and Yeltsin receive scant attention. There are other more serious omissions. In his discussion about the origin of the Cold War he does not mention the rise of communism in Italy and France and how it affected the dynamic of the Cold War and led to the Marshall Plan; or the Iran-Azerbaijan crisis of 1946 that heightened the tensions between former World War II allies. Finally, he is completely silent on the topic of McCarthyism which profoundly shaped US culture, domestic and foreign policies in the Cold War.[4]

“Toward a Global Civilization” offers bits and pieces of global history, but it fails short on showing connections between these different events and processes and how their mutual dynamics and interdependence shaped the world of today.

Unit 5 offers some well conceived sections. For example, Spielvogel’s treatment of global demographic trends and economic problems is good. Graphic content is mostly well presented (with the exception of timelines that feature a series of seemingly randomly selected events that are mostly not covered in the text). Notwithstanding this recognition, “Toward a Global Civilization” overall appears as a patchwork of loosely sewn episodes of world history after World War II.  Organizing Cold War history and beyond is a difficult task for every teacher. Unfortunately, Spielvogel did not make that task any easier.

Lazic Image 3Milorad Lazic is a PhD candidate at the George Washington University. He is writing a dissertation about US-Yugoslav relations in the context of the global Cold War in the 1970s. Milorad received his MA degree in history from Central Connecticut State University and a BA degree in history from the University of Belgrade.

Notes

[1] See Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Robert McMahon, ed., The Cold War in the Third World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] For example see Kevin McDermott, Communist Czechoslovakia, 1945-1989. A Political and Social History (London: Palgrave, 2015).

[3] See Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011) and Tim Borstelman, The Cold War and the Color Line. American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[4] For McCarthyism and culture see Stephen Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) explained how McCarthyism and accusations against the Truman administration that it “lost China” led John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to engage in Vietnam with catastrophic consequences.

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