The Bloody Canvas Where Borders Were Drawn
A globe full of power and destruction, and the lines meant to keep the peace
<this is a conceptual rough draft, feedback appreciated>
The men who drew our world
Nothing says power like sitting at a table and carving up nations with your pen. This is the situation that Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill found themselves in July of 1945. Their countrymen were still hauling bodies out of ditches, finding POWs, and in the case of the United States, still fighting and dying in the Pacific.
They had the task of dividing up the spoils of war, but something had changed from previous victories throughout history.
These great powers, along with the lesser powers of the world, still needed to consider their own survival as well as gains from the war.
Underlying the the negotiations was more than the usual territorial leverage and power, underlying the negotiations was the reality that “we will not survive another one of these.”
This was true for multiple reasons. Every populated continent had sustained casualties, some of them a grave amount. There was the genocide of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, the slaughter of the Chinese, another slaughter of fighting age French, countless Russians whom western historians count in seven figures, millions of nameless dead, and the starved and suffering nations that were now intertwined in a globalized world.
Leaders of empires always find ways to preserve themselves. They are too stoic, or unaffected to let the loss of millions deter their decisions of regional domination. This has been true since Kings sent armies to fight. To great kings, armies are not people, they are meant to die.
But even kings, ruling over their subjects, feel war fatigue that presses them into agreements and treaties. The pressure was greater than ever, though because there was a crucial difference, the A-Bomb. It had only been a few centuries since humans around “the world” knew what “the world” truly meant, and now they were able to destroy it — at least the part of it that humans inhabited.
So, these leaders sat around the table, deciding the spoils of a world war, determining the fate of fallen tyrants, figuring out how to maintain followers, be they nations or be they colonies, and all of it carried a brand new unimaginable weight — the weight of armageddon. These men were not utopian philosophers, not sociologists, not economists, they were leaders of militarily active superpowers, and they drew the world from this perspective.
It’s no wonder that the world’s leaders, Churchill & Attley, Stalin, Roosevelt & Truman, felt equipped and responsible for the fates of millions around the world.
Hitler, history’s most reviled tyrant, killed himself and the Third Reich burned to nothingness. Emperor Hirohito would unconditionally surrender and Japan would cease to be an empire after two Japanese cities were destroyed in mere seconds by the A-Bomb.
These men gathered at Yalta, Potsdam, and in their domestic headquarters and drew lines on a map as if they were gods.
The victors dug their levers into the earth and started to move history move forward. The fault lines of their agreements and disputes would scar the earth and scar humanity for the rest of history.
I say scar, implying that their choices were injurious, because these choices did in fact leave lasting physical evidence. They left walls and standing militaries and then importantly millions died as a result of their determinations. But could anybody knew better? If anyone did know better, they were not in a position to advocate for their plan. Even if some utopian world designers, as the very soon-to-be United Nations claimed to be, did know a better plan, many of the pre-existing problems might have been irreconcilably volatile. Negotiations resulting in peace instead of violence would be, by any rational persons’ determinations, walkings a razor’s edge.
The men determined that the answer to the problem of global annihilation was to draw the world into little boxes, in some cases under dominion of greater powers, and in others into experimental nation-states, however problematic and imperfect they may be.
Why not live and let live?
For the first time in history, the world was full. British men, American men, and Russian men carved up countries from their desks not out of the same colonial arrogance of the past, but to construct the world in a fashion that would not explode. Mishandling Germany, Korea, the Levant, and India could, and in some cases would, result in further mass casualty and outright war.
It was apparent that this “full world” was a perpetual turf war. They divided and controlled all unclaimed and disputed territory, because not doing so would result in another world war, which for the first time in history, would result in annihilation.
Rethinking WW1 and WW2
Keep in mind that World War 2 was actually the first World War involving all continents. In some Ways, WW1 could be called bicontinental with spheres of impact radiating outward — WW2 was truly the first World War, involving all populated continents. Also, World War One’s dramas, particularly regarding power sharing in Europe — the locus of global colonialism, was extended directly into WWII. Instead of two different wars with beginnings and ends, they are better thought of as two bookends on an era of massive power redistribution and the final dealing of the cards of the sovereign nation state concept.
In the grand scheme of history it is The World War — Part 1 and Part 2.
Between these bookends the final barbarians grabbed power, challenging the sovereignty of weak nations. The economic disaster that occurred in the U.S. rippled throughout the world. The world had never been so connected, and once it was, production and destruction proliferated at speeds never seen before.
These conditions of a world at war laid the groundwork for our modern world divided by sharp borders and national identity. Up until this time, nobody knew how to do this. Citizens had not yet become property of states and the ink of state outlines themselves was still drying.
This is a story not only of geopolitics and national borders, but of humans’ domination of the entire globe and the division of the globe into properties, yards, and territories.
Colonial Thinking and RealPolitik
Often I look at colonial history — why couldn’t England let a nation rule itself? In the most gentle view we could see that Great Britain needed its colonies to be trading partners. But a more more accurate reality was they they needed them to be slaves, sending the cream of their crop back to the seat of the empire. They administered the entire subcontinent of India with only 1,000 administrators using a strategy of manipulation. It took a while for Indians, which didn’t exist as a singular identity yet, to realize they were being ruled at all. They didn’t have a national consciousness from which to push against the colonizers. Soon they would have that national consciousness and they would use it to push out the British.
We’d see this growing national consciousness start to coalesce in other areas of the world as people began to fight for themselves, rather, fight for their nations. The Arab world, the Jews, Korea, African nations, India, Pakistan, and throughout the rest of Africa and Asia people demanded their right for self-determination — at least the right not to be colonized.
Germany can’t rule itself?
The Soviet Union and the United States couldn’t let Germany administer itself after the war. First of all, the German people allowed Nazis to come to power, but secondly, post-war Germany was a power vacuum. Each party felt that if they didn’t have influence in Germany, the other superpowers would.
This is how Great Britain justified their colonization, because their European neighbors were doing it, too. If they didn’t colonize India, for example, France would.
Imagine a turf war in a neighborhood. If you don’t claim a particular block in which to extort and sell drugs, the rival gang certainly will, so according to realist game theory, you HAVE to occupy the neighborhood.
After two massive wars where great powers were slamming into each other around the world it became necessary to divide up the world. It became necessary to be clear about which land was whose.
And despite the intentions of armistice and peace, from the perspective of the world designers, you still can’t give up turf.
If you do give up turf, you must give it to a “sovereign entity,” a state similar to your own that you can trust will not begin to serve your enemy.
It was from this realist perspective that these few men put pens to paper and made lines where walls would be built and people would die trying to cross them.
Consider this, what if the USSR and the West were not split by Nazi Germany, would they have been bound to fight directly? This would have been before the nuclear deterrent. In a full world, global conflict was inevitable. Hitler was merely an early spark. He was not the only genocidal maniac of history.
Consider India and Pakistan before WW2, the few foreign men ruling over the many for so many decades, the crown jewel, where ethnic tensions and poverty were the remainder of a century of tenuous “order.”
Zionist settlers and provocateurs meeting Arab nationalism in a post colonial vacuum where foreign powers had been taking advantage from every direction. The Zionists were reeling from a holocaust, and the Arabs were reeling from subjugation.
And Germany, taken over by the greatest despot madman of the 20th century. I know we compare him with Mao and Stalin, but Hitler set the mark. The two opposing forces literally met in the capital city to determine the fate of one of the most consequential nations of history.
Korea had been taken over by Asia’s own despot, and like Germany, the polar forces of the world met in the middle of this uncertain land, and the rising superpower, the sleeping giant of China, was awoken by its singular founding father. And it was determined to have a buffer zone against the imperialist west.
From the Soviet and U.S. perspective some of these power disputes rather clear, though not easy. West Germany and East Germany would be very distinct, North Korea and South Korea obviously could not be relinquished without resistance. But for Great Britain’s colonial karma, this was much fishier. As they let go of the Middle East and in the Indian subcontinent, they did not know how to control what they were letting go of. Each problem had its own unique and violent aftermath.
These are the conditions under which these men must drew the boundaries and made the deals that would become the world’s most heated lines separating people, and from these lines would grow the hard edges of nationalism that would grow around the world and dictate human movement for ever after.