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Contemporary World History | What is the Contemporary Period?

Instructor: Cheryl Roberts

Cheryl Roberts has master's degrees in English and history and taught taught college composition, literature, and history for over 20 years.

Study contemporary world history and read a summary of the contemporary era. Learn the definition of contemporary history and why studying it is important. Updated: 03/16/2023

What is Contemporary History?

The word "contemporary" can be defined as "happening or beginning now or in recent times." Historians generally divide the study of history into major periods according to political, social, and technological events. Modern history is usually defined as beginning in the 15th century and continuing through the present. Modern history can be further divided into Early Modern History (15th–late 18th century), Late Modern History (late 18th century–1945), and Contemporary History (1946–present).

While using the words "contemporary" and "history" together may seem like an oxymoron, or the use of two apparently contradictory terms, they actually mesh well together in contemporary history. As soon as an event ends, it becomes history. Studying events that occurred recently provides a foundation for understanding current events.

The Contemporary Era

Most historians consider contemporary world history to have begun after the end of World War II in 1945. The war brought dramatic changes to political and social conditions and laid the foundation for future scientific and technological advances. Understandably, the understanding of what the contemporary era is will change with time, but it is possible to identify major trends and events that have directly affected today's world.

Political Events

Since 1946, the world has been involved in ongoing political conflicts. While the origins of the conflicts vary, they have in common the fact that they are founded on strong beliefs and desires, whether political, social, or religious. Even if some of the conflicts can be assigned specific beginning and ending dates, the consequences of the conflicts continue today.

Democracy vs. Communism

Democracy is a political system based on rule by the people, with decisions based on majority consent. While it was first introduced by the ancient Greeks, democracy assumed importance in the world with the adoption of the United States Constitution. Democracy continues to be the most widely adopted political system in the world. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin led the Russian Revolution and turned Russia into a communist nation. Communism advocates abolishing private ownership of property and state ownership of major production facilities. When World War II ended in 1945, the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union emerged as the world's two superpowers. Each power was wary of the other's increasing influence over other countries, and each attempted to strengthen its relative position in the world. This led to the Cold War, which began shortly after the end of the war.

The Cold War resulted in a world basically divided into two camps, either democratic or communist. A metaphorical Iron Curtain separated the democratic powers from the communist powers. This curtain was epitomized by the Berlin Wall constructed by the Soviet Union in 1961 to separate East Berlin from West Berlin. As communism spread from the Soviet Union to other countries, the United States sought to contain the spread. Both countries entered into an arms race in which they both worked to develop more and more powerful weapons. With the development of nuclear weapons, the two countries were basically at a stalemate as they reached the capability of mutual destruction. While the Cold War theoretically ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the breaking down of the Soviet Union, tensions continue to this day.

The Berlin Wall

long concrete wall in the middle of a city

The Korean and Vietnam Wars

After World War II, Korea was divided into two countries, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). North Korea was actually governed by a harsh communist regime while South Korea was democratic. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States joined the conflict in support of South Korea while China supported North Korea. After three years of fighting and at least 2.5 million deaths, the Korean War ended without a formal conclusion, and the boundary between North and South Korea remained unchanged.

American soldiers marching in snow during the Korean War

photo of soldiers marching in snow

The country of Vietnam was split in two after 1945 when two opposing forces, the communists led by Ho Chi Minh in the north and a democratic regime in the south, both claimed control of the country. Armed conflict erupted. At the time, the United States was involved in the Cold War and feared communist expansion, so it supported the southern region with economic and military aid. The war was accompanied by massive anti-war demonstrations in the United States. The Vietnam War ended in 1973 when the United States withdrew its support, and in 1976, Vietnam was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The Middle East

Conflict in the Middle East has been based since World War II largely on religious issues and sovereignty claims. After the state of Israel was established, there were conflicts with Palestine, whose citizens were displaced, and conflicts with neighboring, Muslim-majority nations. Governments in the Middle East are often controlled by religious factions, which are frequently at odds with each other over interpretations of Islam and over control of the land. Oil has become a significant issue as some areas have become wealthy and use production as a political weapon. Individual and women's rights continue to be issues that create dissent.

Middle Eastern conflict involves both internal entities fighting each other and external groups being drawn into the conflict. As various groups in the Middle East vie for power, other nations, including the United States, have been drawn into the conflicts to either protect their own interests or to provide support for certain groups. From Kuwait to Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been ongoing fighting in the region since the end of World War II.

The War on Terror

The September 9, 2001, terrorist attack woke up the world to the increasing use of violence and terrorism to make political statements. The United States and other countries entered into a protracted War on Terror to fight terrorist factions in the Middle East. Terrorism has become a widely used tactic throughout the world.

Domestic terrorism has also become a significant issue, particularly in the United States. Domestic terrorism involves violent actions against the citizenry or population of a country, usually by citizens of that country. Right-wing religious and political factions in the US have increasingly employed domestic terrorism as a way to make dramatic statements, with a recent example being the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Firefighters working in the rubble of 9/11

firemen working in rubble surrounded by smoke and debris

Science and Technology

Scientific and technological advances have occurred at an increasingly rapid pace since 1946. Scientific discoveries and improvements in technology have made life easier for many, although these benefits have not reached all parts of the world.

Space Exploration

After World War II, space exploration became a vehicle for competition between the United States and the Soviet Union as each struggled to achieve dominance and prestige. The space race created opportunities for both countries to demonstrate increasingly sophisticated technological innovations. A highlight of the space race was the US placement of humans on the moon for the first time in 1969. Exploration continued with the development of space shuttles and the establishment of an orbiting space station. The ongoing exploration of Mars continues with the goal of eventually sending humans to the planet.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon

photo of man in a spacesuit on a rocky surface

Climate Change

Our planet's climate is changing; the planet is warming, and deadly toxins are being introduced into the air, earth, and oceans. While there continues to be debate over whether the change is being caused by human technological activities, most experts agree that 20th-century industrialization with human practices including deforestation and increasing global emission of greenhouse gases are the leading causes of global climate change. There is agreement that measures are needed to stall global warming and combat its effects on the world for future generations.

Deforestation in Indonesia

land cleared of  trees

The Digital Revolution

The Digital Revolution that began in the 1980s reshaped virtually every aspect of society. As technology improved at a rapid rate, computers were devised to handle tasks that had previously been performed by humans. New jobs were created to manage these computers, while other jobs disappeared as technology replaced human labor. Cell phones made personal communication possible everywhere, and the Internet created a world capable of instantaneous communication and made possible the rise of both mass and social media.

Social and Economic Events

The political, scientific, and technological changes of the contemporary time period have been accompanied by, and in some respects have caused, massive changes in society and culture worldwide. The interconnectedness caused by technological innovations has meant that social and cultural norms have meshed across the globe. The economies of all countries are now closely intertwined.

The Global Financial Crisis

Between 2007 and 2008, a massive economic crisis occurred in the United States, with the collapse of banks and accompanying financial woes. Millions of jobs were lost. The US financial woes led to a global financial crisis involving the international economic community, which is heavily tied to US finances.

Mass Media and Social Media

In 1945, very few homes had televisions, and there was limited programming offered. Today, there is almost limitless programming available, and even cell phones have viewing capabilities. Movies and television offer a wide variety of on-demand options, and the world has become connected through the ability to broadcast live events worldwide. Mass media has brought the world together through its ability to reach the entire globe. Information and entertainment are available to everyone almost instantaneously.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happened during the contemporary period?

The contemporary era has seen wars continuing throughout the world and ongoing political tensions. The Digital Revolution revolutionized every aspect of life, providing instantaneous communication capabilities to every individual. The world today is connected in a way unimaginable in 1946.

What is the contemporary era?

The contemporary period is generally defined as beginning after the end of World War II in 1945. Contemporary history continues to the present day and, as a result, is continually changing.

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