Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties

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by Paul Johnson

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The classic world history of the events, ideas, and personalities of the twentieth century.


The classic world history of the events, ideas, and personalities of the twentieth century.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Modern Times

The World from the Twenties to the Nineties
By Paul Johnson


Copyright ©1992 Paul Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060922834

Chapter One

A Relativistic World

The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe. It had been apparent for half a century that the Newtonian cosmology, based upon the straight lines of Euclidean geometry and Galileo's notions of absolute time, was in need of serious modification. It had stood for more than two hundred years. It was the framework within which the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the vast expansion of human knowledge, freedom and prosperity which characterized the nineteenth century, had taken place. But increasingly powerful telescopes were revealing anomalies. In particular, the motions of the planet Mercury deviated by forty-three seconds of arc a century from its predictable behaviour under Newtonian laws of physics. Why?

In 1905, a twenty-six-year-old German Jew, Albert Einstein, then working in the Swiss patent office in Berne, had published a paper, "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies", which became known as the Special Theory of Relativity.Einstein's observations on the way in which, in certain circumstances, lengths appeared to contract and clocks to slow down, are analogous to the effects of perspective in painting. In fact the discovery that space and time are relative rather than absolute terms of measurement is comparable, in its effect on our perception of the world, to the first use of perspective in art, which occurred in Greece in the two decades c.500-480 BC.

The originality of Einstein, amounting to a form of genius, and the curious elegance of his lines of argument, which colleagues compared to a kind of art, aroused growing, world-wide interest. In 1907 he published a demonstration that all mass has energy, encapsulated in the equation E = mc2, which a later age saw as the starting point in the race for the A-bomb. Not even the onset of the European war prevented scientists from following his quest for an all-embracing General Theory of Relativity which would cover gravitational fields and provide a comprehensive revision of Newtonian physics. In 1915 news reached London that he had done it. The following spring, as the British were preparing their vast and catastrophic offensive on the Somme, the key paper was smuggled through the Netherlands and reached Cambridge, where it was received by Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy and Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Eddington publicized Einstein's achievement in a 1918 paper for the Physical Society called "Gravitation and the Principle of Relativity". But it was of the essence of Einstein's methodology that he insisted his equations must be verified by empirical observation and he himself devised three specific tests for this purpose. The key one was that a ray of light just grazing the surface of the sun must be bent by 1.745 seconds of arc -- twice the amount of gravitational deflection provided for by classical Newtonian theory. The experiment involved photographing a solar eclipse. The next was due on 29 May 1919. Before the end of the war, the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, had secured from a harassed government the promise of #1,000 to finance an expedition to take observations from Principe and Sobral.

Early in March 1919, the evening before the expedition sailed, the astronomers talked late into the night in Dyson's study at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, designed by Wren in 1675-6, while Newton was still working on his general theory of gravitation. E.T. Cottingham, Eddington's assistant, who was to accompany him, asked the awful question: what would happen if measurement of the eclipse photographs showed not Newton's, nor Einstein's, but twice Einstein's deflection? Dyson said, "Then Eddington will go mad and you will have to come home alone." Eddington's notebook records that on the morning of 29 May there was a tremendous thunderstorm in Principe. The clouds cleared just in time for the eclipse at 1.30 pm. Eddington had only eight minutes in which to operate. "I did not see the eclipse, being too busy changing plates...We took sixteen photographs." Thereafter, for six nights he developed the plates at the rate of two a night. On the evening of 3 June, having spent the whole day measuring the developed prints, he turned to his colleague, "Cottingham, you won't have to go home alone." Einstein had been right.

The expedition satisfied two of Einstein's tests, which were reconfirmed by W.W. Campbell during the September 1922 eclipse. It was a measure of Einstein's scientific rigour that he refused to accept that his own theory was valid until the third test (the "red shift") was met. "If it were proved that this effect does not exist in nature", he wrote to Eddington on 15 December 1919, "then the whole theory would have to be abandoned". In fact the "red shift" was confirmed by the Mount Wilson observatory in 1923, and thereafter empirical proof of relativity theory accumulated steadily, one of the most striking instances being the gravitational lensing system of quasars, identified in 1979-80. At the time, Einstein's professional heroism did not go unappreciated. To the young philosopher Karl Popper and his friends at Vienna University, "it was a great experience for us, and one which had a lasting influence on my intellectual development". "What impressed me most", Popper wrote later, "was Einstein's own clear statement that he would regard his theory as untenable if it should fail in certain tests.... Here was an attitude utterly different from the dogmatism of Marx, Freud, Adler and even more so that of their followers. Einstein was looking for crucial experiments whose agreement with his predictions would by no means establish his theory; while a disagreement, as he was the first to stress, would show his theory to be untenable. This, I felt, was the true scientific attitude..."


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What People are saying about this

Foreign Affairs
"Wide-ranging and quirky, this history of our times (since World War I) hits all the highlights and hot spots: the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the 1980s...A letter-day Mencken, Johnson is witty, gritty, and compulsively readable."
Stephen Spender
"A work of intellect and imagination."
Peter Loewenberg
"Johnson's insights are often briliant and of value in their startling freshness."
David Gress
"A marvelously incisive and synthesizing account."
Robert A. Nisbet
"Truly a distinguished work of history...Modern Times unites historical and critical consciousness. It is far from being a simple chronicle, though a vast wealth of events and personages and historical changes fill it....We can take a great deal of intellectual pleasure in this book."
Edmund Fuller
"Frequently surprises, even startles us with new views ofd past events and fresh looks at the characters of the chief world movers and shakers, in politics, the military, economics, science, religion, and philosophy of six decades."

Meet the Author

Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.

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Modern Times Revised Edition: World from the Twenties to the Nineties, the 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Paul Johnson's book is very readable, well-documented, and filled with surprising and interesting detail. It is 'biased' in that the reader will have little trouble guessing that the author is relatively conservative and sympathetic to religious belief. But it is not biased in the sense of being smug, presumptious, sloppy, manipulative, or question-begging. Johnson's revisionist project is to tell the story of modern history while unmasking the darker side of modernity. Along the way he unearths a broad range of facts usually omitted from popular history. I experienced the parade of surprising facts and unanticipated perspectives as a great rush of fresh air, though someone to whom Roosevelt and Kennedy are gods and communists are at worst misguided idealists would react differently. A few examples: the author leaves us with the sense that Harding was a true democrat ''small 'd'' and one of our better presidents, and that Coolidge was an intellectual prodigy who translated Dante's Inferno for his girlfriend as a present, while Kennedy was an intellectual mediocrity and Nixon's downfall was indeed a conspiratorial effort by the eastern establishment. The terrorist campaigns and mass murders of the Bolsheviks in Russia and elsewhere, and Soviet successes in penetrating American ruling circles, are not passed over delicately but dug into with relish. For example, the author tells us that the often romanticized loyalists of the Spanish Civil War murdered 13% of the clergy, often by grotesque methods, and were largely under Stalin's control. Continuing revelations from Soviet archives in the years since this book was published have tended to vindicate the author's muckraking stance. Most historians today would concede that Alger Hiss was passing secrets to the Soviets, as was Roosevelt's Vice President, Henry Wallace. Of course, the Cold War and its origins is just a fragment of Johnson's narrative. But conservatives will be grateful to Johnson for seemingly confirming their suspicions, while liberals who can endure his irrevent approach to their heroes will benefit from the exercise of confronting his facts and reasoning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book, by an excellent author, made even better by the revision to the period of the '90's. After reading this, one will better understand the shape of the Western world today, and how we got to where we are. This is my second copy, and well worth the purchase again. Good for rereading, and an excellent historical source to "archive" for the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is perhaps the single most educating book I have ever read. A objective, cause-and-effect oriented view of the 20th century in extreme detail and with as little bias as is perhaps possible of an author. Not only does he provide enlightening views on world history, but when he does cast his own opinion, he is clear to state it as such. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a revised version of a wonderful historical study accomplished by a noted conservative journalist and would-be amateur historian whose political observations, while not always true to the temper of the times, are always fascinating and well-thought through in terms of the logic and reason propelling and informing them. Opening the book by looking through the disparate prisms offered by the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union on the one hand and the Einsteinian scientific revolution in the academies of the western world on the other, Johnson shows how these two forces have savaged the nature of the traditional world of the nineteenth century in the wake of their momentous changes. Johnson argues forcefully for the idea that much of what follows, from the Great Depression to World War Two to the new world order following the war can be traced to the effects of these two revolutions. Taken to this point, few would argue with the author's supposition. Yet he seems bound to follow this thread of thought to the point of absurdity, as when he argues that the student revolts of the 1960s were puerile and degenerative exercises in futile protest, or that the events surrounding Watergate in the 1970s were in essence a witch hunt conducted by liberals against a wrongly vilified and much misunderstood President Richard M. Nixon. For those of us who were there, such a take is hard to square with our own recollection of both the events and the context in which the historical events in question occurred. Too often his brilliance is compromised by his seeming need to revise the ostensible truth in favor of a more political consistent version of what happened, and this ends up undercutting his argument by showing us its vulnerable underbelly. This underbelly is his need to try to recast the history of the 20the century into a omnipresent thread of rationality, steadily moving forward as the motive engine of progress by defeating the reactionary and emotional forces of tradition, in effect counterposing them with the forces of science and reason, always equating these forces of science and reason with modern conservatisim. Yet this is a razor's edged argument, for too often science and reason have failed us, and Johnson seems either unwilling or unable to see this, and to therefore temper his argument and his narrative to allow those elements to surface and congeal so we can judge their merit by understanding their limits and risks along with their merits and benefits. Yet, in spite of its tendency to sermonize and propound conservative political interpretations of the events under study, this is a book well worth the reading, for there is no doubt that it is a well documented, well detailed, and very well written tome. It is still in print, albeit in a revised version, well more than a decade after its original publication. It is accessible and provocative, and the author shows a sense of humor in delivering what is obviously a very conservative take on the events of the 20th century. Understanding this single limitation, I would still argue it is a very informative and worthwhile read! In fact, this is a book that I can highly recommend. Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the way history should be written. Johnson's constant incorporation of fascinating and highly relevant anecdotes, his integration of complex intellectual, scientific and social trends, and his vivid and insightful analysis of the movers and shakers of 20th century history is superb. As a former history graduate student the breadth, depth, relevance and organization of his research is highly impressive and lends the work great authority. Johnson's style is entertaining, well-balanced, and articulate. The work is a must read for any teacher or serious student of 20th century history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well researched and written, and a real page turner. The only downer is that the chapters, averaging 40 - 50 pages each, aren't subdivided to provide for easy breaking points. It's difficult to know how to pause in reading and then resume without breaking the continuity of the narrative. So, plan to invest about 1.5 hours of continuous reading per chapter or risk lapse of continuity.
Belechannas More than 1 year ago
Riveting, lucid and insightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very imfoormative. Well worth reading.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are a liberal intellectual, don't bother reading this book. You already understand the history of the twentieth century, because you lived it. And what you didn't live, you read about in the NY Times. Besides, you wouldn't want to complicate your Marxist world view with the knowledge of a few unpleasant facts that might dampen your enthusiasm towards supporting activist causes likely to achieve social justice within your life time. It's much simpler to sip mocha lattes, watch Michael Moore documentaries, and then discuss the fundamental evils inherent in capitalism. And besides, we all know the truth about how it's going to end, with the proletarian forces controlling the means of production and all, it's inevitable. All change is progress! And if you are a conservative intellectual, don't bother reading this book either. I know you'd prefer to freeze that moment in 1945 when America emerged from WWII victorious, when the 'greatest generation' was still young, and hang on to that feeling forever, but the truth is that things can never 'stay the same'. You'd be better off watching the History Channel and reminiscing about the good old days, than sneaking a peak at the last chapter...(don't worry, America wins in the end). But if you don't think we quite know how the twentieth century turned out, or where we seem to be heading, or what forces brought us to where we are today, then by all means, read this book. But caveat lector, not all the traps and pitfalls we are likely to face during this next century are as apparent or simple as a reading of this book might lead you to believe. Ideals like individualism and Keynesian economics are fine things, but unless you've learned to select your 'categories' better than Plato and Aristotle, when ideals get carried to extremes, they lead to unintended consequences. Just ask those Arab sheiks who invested their petrodollars, and then turned around and imposed an oil embargo in '73. They probably wished their imman had learned 'em some Keynesian economics before hand. And finally, if you are a naturalist who can stomach a journey into the failed idealism of the twentieth century and uncover just where those ideals went wrong, this is the book for you. But I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to a discovering of the limits of Keynesian economics or its' impact on the history of the future any more than I was in discovering that Nietzsche was right about the will to power or Freud was about the death instinct.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very intelligent and well written with rich detail, however the author completely leaves out crucial and relevant aspects of history such as the American involvement in South America among a host of other topics. Also he does not maintain objectivity in addressing controversial topics like the Cold War. His treatment eliminates the entire cause-effect relationship of history and reduces it to a two dimensional good vs. evil outlook.