M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

The world that emerged from World War II was very different from the one that went into it. This was perhaps especially true of Britain, which, going into the war, had long had claim to being the world’s mightiest nation, the ruler of a vast global empire. The United States, once a part of that empire, was, on the other hand, a rather isolationist nation that had only dabbled in international politics prior to being drawn into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Coming out of the war, Britain was an exhausted nation, its empire on the verge of collapse. The United States, its industrial base mobilized in support of the war and suffering no physical damage from the conflict, emerged from the war ostensibly ready to step into the position so long held by the British as the world’s most powerful nation. Of course, the situation of both Britain and the U.S. was complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union also emerged from the war more powerful than ever, setting up a Cold War between the American-led West and the Soviet-led East that would be the most powerful factor in global politics for nearly half a century.

In the years immediately after the end of the war (sometimes referred to as the “long 1950s” and running roughly from late 1945 to 1964) dramatic changes continued to occur in both British and American society. The British Empire largely unraveled, beginning with the granting of independence to India, its most important colony, in 1947 and extending through most of the rest of the empire by the time Kenya, Britain’s last African colony, gained independence via the Kenya Independence Act of 1963. The national identity of the United Kingdom had long depended on the existence of the empire, which was effectively what put the “Great” in Great Britain. Meanwhile, the British saw one of their former colonies, the United States, step into their former role as a global superpower, even as the power of Hollywood and the American Culture Industry were, in a cultural sense, beginning to colonize Britain itself.

The British economy was also under considerable stress during the long 1950s, a period during which the American economy experienced unprecedented growth. At the same time, this growth led to a great deal of instability in American society due to the radical changes that were underway to accommodate this growth, including an increasing role for women in the workplace. Meanwhile, Americans were unaccustomed to their new role as a global power, and their new confrontation with the Soviet Union fed into an air of paranoia and fear in which Americans were terrified that the Cold War might suddenly go hot, leading to a nuclear holocaust—or that communist subversion would undermine America in more subtle ways. On the other hand, the wave of anticommunist hysteria that swept across America during the long 1950s was so powerful that many Americans felt far more threatened by anticommunist hysteria than they did by communism.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 nearly brought the U.S. into all-out war with the Soviet Union, American anticommunist hysteria began to recede, as many began to realize that anti-Soviet zealotry was leading in dangerous and potentially cataclysmic directions. The shock of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963 also caused many Americans to reassess their devotion to destroying the Soviet Union and to concentrate more on solving America’s own problems. Important works of American culture, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Doctor Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both reflected this new awareness of the insanity of the Cold War nuclear arms race and contributed to a growing lack of appetite for the continuing escalation of the arms race. Meanwhile, just as the confrontation with the Soviets was reaching a new, less rabid stage, the Cold War did become hot on a localized level when the United States became embroiled in the war in Vietnam, where the former anticolonial uprising against France now morphed into a civil war in Vietnam, where most people supported the communist North, in response to which the United States supported a weak and corrupt South Vietnamese government in an attempt to prevent the communist takeover of the entire country. This intervention put the U.S. on the wrong side of history in the ongoing global movement toward dissolution of the former colonial empires of Britain and France.

The American involvement in Vietnam, difficult to justify on any sort of ethical basis or even on the practical basis of American national interests, soon became so controversial that opposition to the war effort became the central mobilizing force amid a widespread wave of youth-led political activism that also included newly invigorated movements in support of civil rights and women’s rights. Indeed, the second half of the 1960s saw perhaps the highest level of political activism in American history, leading to important advances in rights for women and for racial minorities and fundamental changes in popular attitudes toward race, sex, and gender.

Similar movements were also underway, though to a lesser extent, in Britain (which was also involved in Vietnam in a secondary way as an American ally). In addition, beginning in the 1960s and moving into the 1970s, there was a resurgence in socialist and trade union activism, drawing upon working-class social and cultural traditions that have long been stronger in Britain and in the U.S. In addition, British culture (especially popular music) made important contributions to a vibrant new youth-oriented “counterculture” that was closely associated with the era’s oppositional political movements.

Race relations also became an important point of contention in Britain. In an attempt to retain influence in their former colonies (and to oppose Soviet influence there), the British established the British Commonwealth and the institution of such policies as free immigration from Commonwealth nations to the United Kingdom. By the 1960s, many in Britain envisioned their island sinking, as a result of the free immigration policies, beneath the weight of a massive wave of dark-skinned immigrants in a sort of reverse colonization, accompanied by waves of mass violence. Perhaps the most famous statement on the matter was contained in the notorious and sensationalist “Rivers of Blood” speech given by Member of Parliament Enoch Powell (1912–1998) in Birmingham on April 20, 1968. Here, Powell decried Britain’s liberal immigration policies (especially with respect to the Commonwealth). In the speech, Powell proclaimed that the British must put a stop to such free immigration for their own survival. In the speech’s most famous passage, Powell began with an allusion to the Roman poet Virgil, then moved to a reference to the racial and unrest that were sweeping the United States at the time, then to a suggestion that Britain’s racial problems would soon be as bad as America’s if something wasn’t done to quell the current tide of immigration:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber[1] foaming with much blood’.[2] That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the 20th century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

Powell’s speech brought pre-existing fears on the part of many in Britain to the surface and stirred considerable popular opposition to the proposed 1968 Race Relations Bill (which made it illegal to refuse housing or work to anyone on the grounds of their ethnicity), though the bill passed nevertheless.

Powell’s speech and the reaction to it revealed a number of ongoing racial tensions in British society, and many have felt that his speech was a key factor in the surprise electoral victory of the Conservative Party in the 1970 Parliamentary elections. And this victory was but the forerunner to the much more important Conservative victory of 1979, a victory that made Margaret Thatcher Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, an office she would hold until 1990, thus becoming the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Thatcher’s staunchly pro-business policies (paralleling those of the contemporaneous Reagan administration in America) presaged the wave of neoliberalism that would eventually sweep the globe by the early years of the twenty-first century. Thatcher’s attitudes and policies were also not particularly hospitable to immigrants (she at times expressed sympathy for Powell’s views even if she regretted the colorful way he had stated them), but the tide of history was toward a more multicultural Britain, and that tendency has continued to this day.

Growing pressure from the antiwar movement eventually drove the U.S. to abandon its efforts in Vietnam in what essentially amounted to the first American defeat in a war and dealing a blow to the “victory culture” that had formed a crucial part of the American national identity at least as far back as World War II—and in many ways all the way back to the conquest of the American frontier in the nineteenth century. The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, came less than eight months after U.S. President Richard Nixon had been driven from office on August 9, 1974, due to the fallout over his participation in the Watergate scandal, in which he had ordered illegal actions against his Democratic political opponents and then had overseen an extensive coverup when those actions began to come to light.

The Watergate scandal and the defeat in Vietnam left the U.S. very much a nation in crisis by the middle of the 1970s, eventually enabling mediocre Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to rise to the presidency in the election of 1980, ushering in a decade of conservative, business-oriented policies in Washington and helping (as did the Thatcher administration in Britain) a restructuring of the global order in which the collapse of the great European colonial empires was succeeded by a new era of neoliberal globalization. By the beginning of the 1990s, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the new neoliberal order, with America as the only remaining global superpower—but with capitalism itself as the truly dominant power in the world. Giant multinational corporations now exercised an unprecedented influence around the world, though backed by American military power, with Britain serving as the most important American ally.

In an early sign of the workings of his new world order, in early 1991, the United States and its allies launched an all-out assault against the Iraqi forces that had occupied and annexed neighboring Kuwait (a leading oil-producing nation). The Iraqi forces were quickly driven back across the Iraqi border, and Kuwaiti oil production soon resumed. Several Western corporations reaped huge profits from the whole endeavor, and Kuwait has remained heavily engaged with Western capitalism ever since, exporting large amounts of oil and importing large amounts of Western consumer goods, while the Kuwaitis themselves have become among the largest per-capita consumers of American-style fast food, with all of the major American fast-food chains doing a brisk business in Kuwait.

Many events of the 1990s changed the texture of human life forever. Probably the most fundamental of these was the rise of the Internet, which has fundamentally changed the way we shop, communicate, learn, and entertain ourselves. The Internet has also helped to bring the world closer together, greatly aiding the process of capitalist globalization. Meanwhile, a long backward Ireland, once an impoverished British colony, underwent dramatic social and economic changes that suddenly made Ireland one of the world’s richest nations—significantly richer than Britain and even richer (per capita) than the United States.

On September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack by Islamist extremists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, one of the most iconic emblems of global capitalism. In response, the U.S. launched what was termed a “war on terror” that, in fact, inflicted considerable terror on much of the Middle East. Afghanistan, which had served as an unofficial home base for the 9/11 attackers, was invaded and a pro-American government was put in place. In 2003, the United States and its allies also invaded Iraq, with the declared intention of toppling the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, which was declared by the American government of George W. Bush to be a leading supporter of terrorism—though, in fact, Saddam’s modernizing regime had been a bitter foe of Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. The Americans aimed to establish a “pro-democracy” (read “pro-capitalist”) regime. Saddam was indeed unseated (and eventually executed), but the U.S. was never able to establish a stable, Western-style nation in Iraq, which remains unsettled and torn by sectarian strife to this day. Meanwhile, Iraq, once the bane of Middle Eastern terrorists, became a haven for terrorist activities, leading to the rise of the Islamic State and the essential collapse of neighboring Syria.

Britain served as a leading American ally in these failed Middle Eastern wars, its secondary participation in these conflicts reflecting Britain’s new status as a second-rate world power, a phenomenon with which many in Britain are still struggling to come to terms. In the meantime, recent years have seen considerable turmoil in Britain. For example, in a 2014 referendum, nearly half the voters in Scotland voted to withdraw from the U.K., and the movement for Scottish independence remains a strong force, with Scotland’s secession from the U.K. remaining a real possibility. Then, in the phenomenon that came to be known as “Brexit,” in January 2020, the U.K. withdrew from the European Union, of which it had been a member since January 1973. The consequences of that withdrawal are still playing out, but disruption in the British economy has already been considerable. At the same time, the U.S. has seen its own political turmoil, which erupted into violence in a January 6, 2020, insurrection at the U.S. capitol, indicative of increasingly bitter divisions between the two major American political parties.

Entering the 2020s, both the U.S. and the U.K. were faced with a global pandemic and the increasingly serious results of global climate change, even as some in both countries sought to pretend that these deadly crises didn’t exist, rather than attempting to deal with them in a timely and effective way. Meanwhile, globalization itself has been seen as a crisis by many: Western workers have often felt their jobs threatened by the migration of manufacturing production overseas in a search for cheap labor, while some in the Middle East and other parts of the world have felt their cultures threatened by the encroachment of a globalized culture that has typically been dominated by the West. Meanwhile, the United States, the world’s dominant power for thirty years, was increasingly seeing its global hegemony threatened by the rise of China as an economic, cultural, and military power. Moving forward, the decade of the 2020s promises to be a challenging and dangerous one but also one in which opportunities for innovation should abound amid the search for ways to deal with the various crisis facing the world.


[1] The Tiber is a river that flows through Rome.

[2] The quotation here is taken from a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid in which the Greek Delphic Apollo, via his priestess at the Greek colony of Cumae, near Naples. She told Aeneas, who was seeking to move into Italy, that such a foreign incursion into Italy would lead to much trouble: ‘I see wars, horrid wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood’ (‘bella, horrida bella / et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno (Aeneid 6.86-7).