I don’t often become completely engrossed in a book of straight history, usually I read historical biographies to get a sense of the past, but this book was hard to put down. With its detailed and in-depth account of events in the year following WWII, focusing on the causes and early stages of the Cold War, 1946: The Making of the Modern World has the most fascinating account of the mid to late twentieth century that I’ve read anywhere. Developments are presented chronologically, starting with an early dispute between the US and the Soviets over oil fields in Iran, but because the background and future impact of each event is included this book is much more than a glorified timeline of how WWII allies very quickly became enemies once the war was over.
Thoroughly researched, the book is highly readable and written with insight and clarity. Its scope goes well beyond Europe and Japan, also including India’s struggles toward independence, France’s attempts to reassert itself in Indochina, the contentious and difficult formations of Israel and Pakistan, colonialism’s dying gasps, and China’s simultaneously occurring communist revolution and war with Japan–one of the many things I learned is that 25% of WWII’s fatalities were in China, more than any other country except the USSR. Some of the most interesting, even eye-opening, parts are revelations about the thoughts, words, and deeds of political leaders, including Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Clement Attlee, Stalin, MacArthur, Hirohito, Mao, Chiang Kai-shek, Mei-Ling Soong, Nehru, Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, David Ben Gurion, and Menachem Begin.
If I had any doubts about the difficulties of occupation or the massive extent of devastation, suffering and displacement that continued well after WWII fighting was over, those uncertainties would have been dispelled forever by this book. Because it was years in the making the author was able to interview many people with personal experiences of the time, giving events a human face and adding poignancy and impact to the history.