Although dominated by the cold war, the history of the past five decades also speaks of many triumphs. Despite wars, political intimidation, and terror, both population and longevity have increased.
Diseases that devastated populations in the Middle Ages have been virtually eradicated, and modern vaccines and medicines promise longer life and better health to millions. In all the Western democracies, concern for the rights of the individual has been heightened. Many societies have questioned their former values and conventional wisdoms, while reaffirming national pride and cohesion, just as others have begun to fragment into smaller units.
Inventions in one part of the globe are quickly known in another part, and technology continues to grow faster than humanity can comprehend: The microchip transforms storage of and access to knowledge; the jet plane shrinks time and distance; and new frontiers are discovered when humans walk in outer space and reach the moon. Also for the first time societies and governments systematically concern themselves with the conservation of resources, with the provision of a wide array of services for mind and body, and with the grim possibility of mutual and near-total destruction.
Against the very substantial gains in health, productivity, and freedom—experienced by the majority of humankind must be set ever-deepening worries. The same technology that has created millions of new jobs, that has contributed to the recognition of equality between the races and between men and women, and that made possible a precarious peace based on the mutual ability of the major powers to destroy each other, also caused vast dislocations in populations, widespread damage to the environment, and the capacity through nuclear warfare to destroy vast portions of the globe.
Greater longevity and better health in general terms must be set off against the rise, in the 1980s, of a deeply disturbing new disease, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which was sweeping across North America, Western Europe, and parts of Africa. In 1990 doctors estimated that perhaps 2 million Americans alone had the disease, and there was frightened talk of a new plague such as the world has not seen for decades if not centuries.
Without necessarily infringing upon political sovereignty, the world has become very small. All of humanity must be concerned with defining moral, ethical, and legal bases for life, though from different perspectives and out of different historical experiences. The long search for stability and security continues. New players on the stage join the nations of Western civilization in this search.