Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party, then president of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. He was a reformer who attempted to fix the economic problems of the system and wanted democracy to grow within the country. He presided over the dismemberment and collapse of his nation.

Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in a small village in the Stavropol region in south Russia. Both his grandfathers were arrested as kulaks during a collectivization drive of 1928–33. His father joined the Communist Party and was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (1941–45).

Gorbachev himself was an eager student, joined the Communist Youth League, and gained acceptance to the law faculty at Moscow State University in 1950. He completed his studies in 1955. During his time in Moscow he met his future wife, Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, who would play a crucial supporting role in his reforms throughout their lives.

While in Moscow, Gorbachev gained a reputation as something of a liberal, publicly approving of the reformist efforts of the current leader, Nikita Khrushchev. He also became close friends with a Czech student, Zdenek Mlynar, who would be active in Czechoslovak politics during the reformist Prague Spring of 1968.

After graduation, Gorbachev returned to Stavropol, where he practiced law for a few years. He was elected first secretary of the Stavropol city Komsomol committee in 1956. From there he began a quick ascent. In 1962 he moved to the Communist Party administration. He became first secretary of the Stavropol city party organization in 1966.

In 1970 he rose to first secretary of the Stavropol region. After eight years he moved to Moscow, where he became the Central Committee secretary for agriculture. Within two years he was a full member of the Politburo, the ruling council of the Soviet state. Finally, in March 1985, he was chosen as general secretary of the Communist Party.

Even before Gorbachev became general secretary, he was thinking about ways to reform the system. His initiatives followed a path laid out by the previous general secretary, Yuri Andropov. These were fairly conservative, calling for higher levels of productivity of labor. In 1986 Gorbachev announced a set of more radical proposals that he called perestroika, or restructuring.

Perestroika called for decentralization and self-accounting for industries. He continued to innovate, even allowing cooperatives in order to gain control of illegal economic activities. None of his reforms challenged the basic nature of the Soviet Union’s planned economic system.


Political reforms became an integral part of perestroika. Because Gorbachev’s economic reforms were criticized and often ignored by entrenched party officials, he sought to remove them and bring new initiative through democratization.

Multicandidate elections within the Communist Party were announced in 1987. Those elections were held in 1988, with thousands of contests throughout the country. When the Congress of People’s Deputies met afterward, it represented a newly reformed Communist Party that pushed Gorbachev to implement additional changes.

Perhaps the most traumatic moment of Gorbachev’s reign occurred when the Chernobyl nuclear station exploded in April 1986. A mix of unsafe construction, insufficient maintenance, and human error led to the worst radiation leak in history.

In its wake, Gorbachev launched the policy of glasnost, or openness, in earnest. At first it involved a few magazines and journals, such as Ogonek and Moscow News, but it quickly spread to almost all other media. These outlets began to publish stories that openly revealed the problems that faced the Soviet Union—including poverty, corruption, and divorce.

In addition, there was a broad reexamination of Soviet history, leading to harsh criticism of Joseph Stalin and even Vladimir Lenin. Literary works and authors that had been banned reappeared, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

Glasnost brought an ambivalent response from the Soviet public. Many were happy to see the truth of the past revealed but many, perhaps a majority, felt that these revelations unnecessarily blackened the reputation of the Soviet Union.

The pent-up hostility of the nations inside the Soviet Union was also released by Gorbachev’s economic, political, and cultural reforms. Beginning in Uzbekistan in 1986 national groups began to resist decisions made in Moscow. Arguments between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over a small piece of territory led to violent clashes in 1988 and demonstrated the increasing weakness of central authority.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania announced their sovereignty starting in 1988. A movement even began among the Russians, led by Boris Yeltsin, to limit the power of the Soviet government over their territory. The increasing pressure from these national groups weakened Gorbachev’s ability to hold the Soviet Union together.

Meeting with Reagan

Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with Ronald Reagan
Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with Ronald Reagan

Foreign affairs were the area where Gorbachev had the most success. Gorbachev pursued a policy of reducing international tension from the beginning of his rule. After 1985 Gorbachev quickly moved toward negotiations that would eventually lead to the end of the cold war. He met with U.S. president Ronald Reagan repeatedly throughout the 1980s.

These meetings culminated in the first arms control treaty in a decade, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which removed both U.S. and Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles from Europe. The good relations continued with President George H. W. Bush, although Gorbachev was never able to gain the large restructuring loans that he had hoped for from the Western powers.

The Soviet allies in eastern Europe benefited from Gorbachev’s approach to foreign policy. The centripetal forces unleashed by perestroika did not stop at the Soviet border. Gorbachev, however, felt that it was unwise to attempt to keep eastern Europe forcibly under Soviet control. Conservative regimes in the Soviet bloc were unable to respond to perestroika and glasnost.

When they appealed to Gorbachev for military help, he refused. Once his policy of nonintervention became clear, these regimes unraveled very quickly. All of the communist states collapsed in 1989. Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his leading role in the reduction of international tensions and the generally peaceful transition to democracy.

With the end of Soviet dominance over eastern Europe, Gorbachev faced increasing internal resistance to his reforms. He tried to strengthen his political position by convincing the Congress of People’s Deputies to create a new position—president of the Soviet Union— and elect him to it in March 1990.

He also proposed the most radical transformation of the Soviet economy so far. Called “the 500 Days,” it was supposed to move the planned economy quickly to a market-based one. He abandoned it before it truly started. Within a few months Gorbachev moved in the opposite direction.

He brought in new advisers who held a conservative vision for the future of the Soviet Union. This conservative swing reached its peak in January 1991, when Soviet troops moved into Lithuania in an attempt to prevent its declaration of independence.

In spring 1991 Gorbachev proposed a new arrangement that would greatly decentralize power but keep the Soviet Union together. He called a nationwide referendum to vote on this new structure. It was approved by almost 75 percent of those who voted in March.

However, Gorbachev’s archrival Boris Yeltsin used the referendum to create a position of president of the Russian Federation, from which he was able to undermine Gorbachev and his plans to hold the Soviet Union together. The new, weaker union was scheduled to go into effect on August 20, 1991.

The weakness in this agreement led a group of conservatives to attempt to restore the centralized power of the Soviet state. A coup attempt was launched on August 19 by men that Gorbachev had appointed earlier. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest and the plotters declared martial law. The coup attempt was quickly defeated.

Resistance from Boris Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Federation, and thousands of Muscovites who gathered outside the Russian parliament convinced the army to remain uninvolved in the political struggle. The coup plotters gave in a few days later. When Gorbachev returned from house arrest, his power was fatally weakened.

Yeltsin took the initiative after the failed coup. Yeltsin banned the Communist Party in Russia and undermined Gorbachev’s last attempts to hold the state together. After months of futile negotiation, Gorbachev resigned as president on December 25, and the Soviet Union was officially disbanded on December 31, 1991.

Gorbachev remains active in Russian political life, though he is intensely disliked by most Russians. He ran for president of Russia in 1996 but received less than 1 percent of the vote. In 2006 he was the head of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow and traveled the world giving speeches. He is also the author of numerous books and a commentator on Russian and world politics.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. Prior to that he had a prominent military career, served in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate from 1947 to 1960, and was the youngest person to be elected president. He is also the only Roman Catholic to be elected president.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose (née Fitzgerald). He attended Dexter School, Riverdale Country School, Canterbury School, and later Choate School.

Graduating in 1935, he went to London to study at the London School of Economics but fell ill and returned to the United States where he attended Princeton University briefly. He then went to Harvard College, spending the summer holidays in 1937, 1938, and 1939 in Europe. John F. Kennedy was in Germany in August 1939, returning to London by September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

In 1940 Kennedy completed his honors thesis, “Appeasement in Munich,” which was subsequently published as Why England Slept. In May and June 1941 Kennedy went to South America. He volunteered for the U.S. Army but was rejected because of his bad back.

However, using contacts in the Office of Naval Intelligence, he was accepted for the navy in September, and when war broke out with Japan in December 1941, he served in the Pacific.

On August 2, 1943, the boat which Kennedy was in, the PT-109, was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri while on a night-time patrol near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. He towed a wounded man to safety and was personally involved in rescuing two others.

Initially, John F. Kennedy had some thoughts about becoming a journalist. The death of his older brother, Joe, in 1944, however, propelled him into politics and in 1946 he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat for Massachusetts, winning with a large majority.

In 1952 he defeated the incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge for the U.S. Senate, and served in the Senate from 1953 to 1960. His book, Profiles in to Courage, was published in 1956, winning the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. Kennedy’s connections with Senator Joe McCarthy were to damage his standing in the liberal establishment, but he did support the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

On September 12, 1953, John Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. They had four children: a daughter, stillborn in 1956; Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, born in 1957; John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., born in 1960; and Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, born in 1963.

In 1960 Kennedy ran for president. What was particularly noteworthy was the first television debate that Kennedy had with his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. Kennedy defeated Nixon in a tightly fought race, with the Democrats gaining 303 electoral college seats against 219 for the Republicans. An independent, Harry Byrd, picked up the remaining 15 electoral college seats.

On January 20, 1961, Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president. The first controversy of his presidency concerned the government of Fidel Castro, which had come to power two years earlier. The Eisenhower administration had allowed anti-Castro Cubans to be secretly trained in the southern United States, mainly in Louisiana and Florida, and they had planned to invade Cuba.

The plan had been drawn up before John F. Kennedy came to power, and on April 17, 1961, Kennedy approved it. However, he cancelled the air support that was to have been provided by the U.S. Air Force. When the Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, they were quickly overwhelmed by the Communists.

The next major crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, took place from October 14, 1962, when American U-2 spy planes photographed a Soviet Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile site under construction in Cuba. He decided that an attack on the site might result in nuclear war, but that inaction would be seen as a sign of weakness.

In the end, he resolved to order a military blockade of the island and eventually came to an agreement with the Soviet Union’s premier, Nikita Khrushchev, that the Soviet Union would remove the missiles, and the United States would promise never to invade Cuba, and withdraw some missiles from bases in Turkey.

Kennedy was interested in rapprochement with the Soviet Union, but he had to be perceived as “tough,” especially in Europe. On June 26, 1963, he visited West Berlin and addressed a large public crowd with the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

In August 1963 Kennedy was able to sign into law the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, and underwater, but did not prohibit testing underground.

Another foreign policy problem that Kennedy faced was the increased fighting in Laos and Vietnam. In the former, the Kennedy administration backed a neutral government, and in the latter, the United States was heavily involved in supporting the anticommunist South Vietnamese government led by President Ngo Dinh Diem.

By 1963 there were 15,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. Diem had ruled South Vietnam since late 1954 and was becoming increasingly authoritarian. Kennedy felt that it was Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was a major problem and wanted Diem to get rid of Nhu. Ngo Dinh Diem realized that Ngo Dinh Nhu was his most powerful supporter and refused.

This led the Kennedy administration to give the go-ahead for Buddhist South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, who, along with Ngo Dinh Nhu, was murdered. The new regime was inherently unstable, causing the United States to commit more combat soldiers, escalating the war.

The domestic program introduced by Kennedy was known as the New Frontier. He tried to legislate to prevent the continuance of racial discrimination. He also proposed tax reforms and promised federal funding for education, more medical care for the elderly, and government intervention to boost the economy of the nation.

Most of these measures were to be introduced by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. It was Johnson who, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, introduced the measures that Kennedy had supported.

John F. Kennedy is also well known for his commitment to the space program. With the Soviet Union managing to win all the first stages of the space race, John F. Kennedy pushed for greater effort from the American people. The moon landing took place on July 20, 1969, during Nixon’s presidency.

As John Kennedy had only narrowly won the 1960 presidential election, he began his campaign for reelection early. This involved trying to win support from the southern states. He went to Texas in November 1963, where, on November 22, in Dallas, at 12:30 p.m., he was assassinated.

A loner, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested about 80 minutes later and charged with murdering a Texas policeman. He was then also charged with murdering John F. Kennedy. Before Oswald could be brought to trial, two days later, on November 24, he was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

There has been much written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 29, five days after the shooting of Oswald, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, created the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission because it was chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

It concluded that John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, a view later endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations reporting in 1979. Most people now view the Warren Commission report with disdain for the evidence that it missed.

John F. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. The bodies of two of his children, his first daughter, and Patrick, his youngest son who died on August 9, 1963, were brought to Arlington and buried with him.

Great Leap Forward in China (1958 – 1961)

Great leap forward poster
Great leap forward poster

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) followed the Soviet Union’s model of planned economy on the socialist model. The success of the First Five-Year Plan (1953–57), undertaken with Soviet financial and technical aid, prompted the government to announce a more ambitious Second Five-Year Plan for 1958–62 that called for a 75 percent increase in industrial and agricultural production.

This was not enough for party leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), who proclaimed a “Great Leap Forward” in February 1958 with the goal of passing Great Britain in industrial production by 1972. It mandated an average 18 percent increase in steel, electricity, and coal production for that year. This was only the beginning of a series of escalating and totally unattainable goals for production.

Mao called on the Chinese people to “walk on two legs,” that is, to use modern and sophisticated plants built with Soviet aid to make steel, along with primitive “backyard” furnaces manned by millions of untrained workers.

By late 1958, 600,000 backyard furnaces had been built throughout China that smelted pots, pans, and farm implements, with wood from forests as fuel, and that produced millions of tons of unusable metal in order to fulfill their quotas and avoid punishment.

To mobilize all the available labor force and to complete the socialist transformation of the people, more than 500 million peasants, or more than 98 percent of the rural population, were organized into 26,000 People’s Communes that controlled all aspects of their lives.

In addition, some city people were organized military fashion into urban communes. Afraid of failure to realize Mao’s fantastic expectations, local Communist bosses competed with one another to announce overachievement of quotas and goals, which allowed the government to announce at the end of 1958 that industrial production for that year had exceeded that of 1957 by 65 percent.

backyard furnaces
backyard furnaces

In launching the Great Leap Forward Mao was also motivated by his disapproval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, whom Mao castigated as “revisionist” for giving incentives to improve productivity in Soviet agriculture. He boasted that he had found a shortcut, through the People’s Communes, to reach the ultimate Marxist utopia ahead of the Soviet Union and thus the right to lead the world communist movement.

The Soviet Union, however, firmly rejected Mao’s claims when Khrushchev declared that “society cannot leap from capitalism to communism.” The debate over the validity of the Great Leap Forward widened the split in the international communist movement and contributed to worsening relations between China and the Soviet Union.

In reality the Great Leap Forward brought unprecedented disaster to the Chinese people. By 1959 it was no longer possible for the government to deny that the economy had been crippled. The people were exhausted and demoralized, and famine stalked the land.

Economists estimated that the economy had declined by $66 billion, and demographers concluded that more than 30 million people had died of starvation in the Mao-made famine, the worst in world history.

At the Lushan Conference of communist leaders Mao had to admit his folly, stepped down from chairmanship of the PRC, and let others who had not lost touch with reality—called pragmatists—run the country to bring it back from ruin.

Green Revolution

Green Revolution
Green Revolution
The term Green Revolution refers to the incredible transformation of agriculture in developing nations between the 1940s and 1960s. Programs of agricultural research and the development of infrastructure led to significant increases in agricultural production. The Green Revolution has had significant social and ecological impact on the world, and because of this has been equally praised and criticized.

For English wheat yield to increase from one-half metric ton per hectare to two metric tons took 1,000 years; the increase from two to six metric tons took only 40 years. The change took place due to improvements in breeding, agronomy, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The result was that by the second half of the 20th century most industrial countries were agriculturally self-sufficient.

Developing countries were less fortunate. Colonial powers invested little in the food production systems of their colonies and did nothing to slow population growth, so by independence in the 1950s–1960s, the new nations were approaching a crisis.

By the mid-1960s hunger and malnutrition were widespread. Asia was particularly dependent on food aid from developed countries. India suffered back-to-back droughts in the mid-1960s, exacerbating the problem.

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations led in the establishment of the international agricultural research system to adapt the latest science and technology to the Third World. Efforts focused on rice and wheat, two of the principal sources of food in the developing world. U.S. Agency for International Development administrator William S. Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution” in 1968.

The Green Revolution spread rapidly. By 1970 approximately 20 percent of the Third World’s wheat area and 30 percent of the rice land in developing countries were planted in high-yield varieties. By 1990 the share was 70 percent for both.

The Green Revolution led to markedly improved yields of cereal grains during the 1960s–1970s due to the development of new seeds through genetics. The beginnings came in Mexico during the 1940s when Dr. Norman E. Borlaug led a team that developed a strain of wheat that was resistant to disease and efficient in converting fertilizer and water into grain.

Shorter and sturdier stalks were necessary to allow the plant to hold the larger grain yield. Borlaug developed dwarf varieties with the requisite characteristics. Initially, Mexico was importing half the wheat it needed. By 1956 it was self-sufficient, and by 1964 it was exporting half a million tons annually.

Rice field
Rice field

Equal success in India and Pakistan kept millions of people from starving. As the technologies spread through the world, crop yields increased each year. But as production of rice and wheat and other genetically altered crops grew, output of other indigenous crops, including pulses, declined.

After wheat came corn, although with less success. Building on the efforts of China, Japan, and Taiwan, the International Rice Research Institute developed semidwarf rice plants. By 1992 a network of 18 research centers, primarily in developing countries, continued the effort to improve yields.

Funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation and other private foundations, national governments, and international agencies including the World Bank. At the same time the Green Revolution came under criticism because it requires fertilizer, irrigation, and other tools unavailable to impoverished farmers. Further, it may be ecologically harmful.

Most important, its emphasis on monoculture leads to a loss of genetic diversity. Academic critics, such as the economist Arartya Sen, note that increasing food production does not necessarily lead to improved food security.

Most industrialized nations consume Green Revolution hybrids. The crops are created through crossbreeding or random mutagenesis to improve crop yield and increase durability to allow for longer shipment and storage times.

Other alterations allow plumper tomatoes or straighter rows of corn. Uniformity eases mechanical harvest. Modified strains still depended heavily on the high use of fertilizers, which consume fossil fuels, instead of the traditional crop rotation, mixing of crops, and use of animal manure.

And large-scale irrigation entailed the use of large volumes of natural monsoon and other water sources. It also required poor farmers to use simple irrigation techniques. Control of pests and weeds by pesticides and herbicides also improved the crops.

The Green Revolution allowed a record grain output of 131 million tons in 1978–79. India became one of the world’s largest producers, and an exporter of food grain. No other nation matched India’s success. The Green Revolution also allowed food production to match population growth.

Mechanization has reduced the need for low-skilled human labor. Farmers and agricultural workers have seen increases in income as production costs have dropped markedly. Mechanization encouraged collectivization— or corporatism—because the machines are too expensive for small landowners. After the initial exploitation, real improvement occurred for many poor farmers.

Between 1970 and 1995, real per capita incomes in Asia almost doubled, with a decline in poverty from nearly 60 percent to less than 33 percent. As population increased 60 percent between 1975 and 1995, poverty decreased from 1.15 billion to 825 million people. India’s rural poor before the mid-1960s ranged from 50 to 65 percent; by 1993 the number was about 33 percent.

Vandana Shiva and other critics of the Green Revolution object to the emphasis on genetically modified, high-yield crops at the expense of quality ones. The dependence on a few strains increases the risk of disaster should a new crop pest arise. The revolution also makes populations dependent on external sources of food. And the potential for future improvement through breeding of different strains is weakened.

Critics also note that the reduction in crop types leads to a less varied, less healthy diet, because the crops are produced for volume, not nutritional quality. Herbicides kill wild plants that are traditionally eaten as vegetables, further restricting the variety in many diets. Pesticides also kill the fish in rice paddies. Water buffalo exposed to the pesticide-rich land develop hoof-and-mouth disease.

Some villages that were previously self-sufficient are suddenly enduring famine that seems irreversible. Supporters note that the Green Revolution has created higher gross nutrition levels and increased the intake of calories.

To promote variety, advocates encourage the planting of vegetable gardens. The newer varieties have improved nutrient content, for example, the “golden rice” with increased carotene, and there is more attention to developing altered versions of less common crops. High-yield sorghum, millet, maize, cassava, and beans are now available.

The Green Revolution changes social arrangements. Many hybrids are sterile. Others are sold with the restriction that farmers cannot save seed. Farmers have to buy seed each year, and the seed they buy is usually hybrid because traditional seeds produce much less.

The Green Revolution also brought traditional subsistence farmers into the world of large-scale industrial agriculture. Many are forced off their farms and into urban poverty because their small holdings are not competitive with the large agribusinesses.

Dependence on chemical fertilizers also leads to ecological damage such as on the Pacific island of Nauru, which was mined extensively for its phosphates. Chemical runoff from fields pollutes streams and other water supplies. DDT and other chemicals used in the early Green Revolution have given way to safer varieties, but the impact remains.

Critics claim that the Green Revolution’s methods destroy land quality because irrigation increases salinity, soil erosion increases, and the soil loses organic material and trace elements due to reliance on artificial means of stimulating growth. The soil weakens, and chemical dependency grows until the soil finally fails.

Supporters counter that new techniques will develop as resources become scarce or environmental damage becomes likely. They note that no-till farming has decreased erosion. And work continues on the development of alternative energy sources, disease- and pestresistant crops, and closed nutrient cycles.


Hamas logo
Hamas logo
Hamas—an acronym of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyaa in Arabic, literally “Islamic Resistance Movement”—was both a part of a regionwide radical Islamic movement that developed in 1980s and an expression of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli domination and occupation. Hamas was established shortly after the outbreak of the first Intifada in the Gaza Strip in 1987.

Its political program and ideology were drafted in lofty Arabic rhetoric and religious symbolism. Hamas believed that “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day.”

Hamas regarded nationalism (wataniya) as an implication of religious faith and struggle against the enemy as a religious duty. Hamas declared itself to be a “humanistic movement, which cares for human rights and is guided by Islamic tolerance when dealing with the followers of other religions.”

According to its charter, “Under the wing of Islam it is possible for the followers of the three religions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—to co-exist in peace and quiet.” Both its charter and many of its official statements are harsh and uncompromising.

Hamas is divided into two main spheres of operation: social programs such as building schools, hospitals, clinics, and religious institutions; and militant operations. The Hamas underground militant operations included a number of suicide bombings that killed a few hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians, especially in February and March 1996, and after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000.

During this second intifada, when Palestinian towns and refugee camps were besieged by the Israeli army, Hamas organized clinics and schools that served Palestinians; it also summarily executed Palestinian collaborators with Israel.

Many Hamas leaders and activists, including its founder, Sheikh Yassin, and his successor, Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, were assassinated by Israel during the so-called targeted killing operations. Its leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in exile in Syria.

hamas soldier
hamas soldier

The social programs and political and religious stance of Hamas contributed to its considerable popularity among the Palestinians. Hamas participated in the January/May 2005 Palestinian municipal elections and achieved control of some places such as Beit Lahya in northern Gaza, Qalqiliya in the West Bank, and Rafah. On January 25, 2006, Hamas won the parliamentary elections, taking 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament.

After the elections Hamas faced considerable diplomatic and financial pressure to adjust its ideology to Western and Israeli demands. In June 2007 Hamas attacked their Fatah rivals, resulting in Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip, while the West Bank remained under control of the Palestinanian National Authority.

Václav Havel - Czech Writer and President

Václav Havel - Czech Writer and President
Václav Havel - Czech Writer and President

Václav Havel is a Czech dramatist, journalist, essayist, and former president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). Havel was born in Prague in 1936 to a prosperous family.

As a member of a former bourgeois family in a communist regime, Havel was denied privileges, including education. In order to finish high school he had to enroll in night school while supporting himself as a lab assistant. Afterward he was not permitted to enroll in a university.

He trained for a short time at a technical institution and later completed his theater degree as a part-time student at the Academy of Arts. After his mandatory military service Havel worked first at the ABC Theater and then at the Theater on the Ballustrade, well known for experimental theater.

Here, in the 1960s, Havel gained acclaim as a leader in the theater of the absurd in Czechoslovakia. Many of Havel’s plays were highly critical of the totalitarian state’s oppression of individual liberties.

During the Prague Spring, a 1968 reform movement led by Alexander Dubˇcek, Havel played an important role. His outspoken support for human rights during the period earned him the antagonism of the communist government.

When Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Havel was prohibited from involvement in public affairs, and his plays were banned from performance or publication. In spite of this Havel continued to write, and his plays and books were published to acclaim in other countries.

Continuing his work for human rights, Havel was arrested and imprisoned a number of times. He was placed under house arrest from 1977 to 1979. Havel tirelessly took up his protest work again. In 1989 he participated in a commemoration of the 1969 death of Czech student Jan Palach and was again imprisoned for several months.

In the same year the Civic Forum, which Havel had helped establish, began a series of protests that overthrew the communist government in what has become known as the Velvet Revolution. In December a heavily Communist parliament chose Havel as the new interim president of Czechoslovakia.

After national elections the new Federal Assembly reelected him in June 1990. In 1993–98 Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic. During his 13 years as leader of postcommunist Czechoslovakia, Havel brought his country back into the mainstream of European politics.

Havel negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops and forged friendships with the United States and European nations. The Czech Republic became a member of the Council of Europe, NATO, and the European Union.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong
Hong Kong map

The First Anglo-Chinese, or Opium, War ended in 1842 in total British victory and the cession by China of Hong Kong (several islands totaling 32 square miles on the tip of the Pearl River estuary) to Great Britain in the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking). Hong Kong prospered and soon needed more room.

Britain acquired the adjoining Kowloon Peninsula (opposite Victoria, the principal island of the colony) from China under the Treaty of Beijing (Peking) in 1860, and in 1898 it leased for 99 years additional land beyond Kowloon, called the New Territory. Britain would rule these 442 square miles of land (except for four years when it was under Japanese occupation between 1941and 1945) until 1997.

Hong Kong was a free port and a hub of international trade in eastern Asia, and it provided refuge for Chinese revolutionaries led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republic, and those fleeing the civil wars of the early republic.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), millions of refugees found opportunities there and a haven from Communist-ruled China.

Because the continuation of a British colony on the China coast offended Chinese nationalism, China demanded Hong Kong’s return. Negotiations between British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiaop’ing) culminated in an agreement in 1984 that would restore all the ceded and leased territories to China on June 30, 1997.

The agreement stipulated that Hong Kong would be ruled for 50 years as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under a Basic Law that allowed it to maintain its own legislature, executive, and judiciary, currency, customs and police forces, flag, and passport. China would be responsible for its defense and foreign policy. Two other significant features of this agreement were:
  1. Hong Kong would retain its capitalist and free-enterprise system and economic and financial structures;
  2. The “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement would calm Hong Kong citizens’ fears of communism and perhaps lure the Republic of China on Taiwan to become part of the PRC.
Britain made many reforms before 1997 that furthered the legal protection and self-governing rights of Hong Kong’s citizens. Nevertheless, several hundreds of thousands of them emigrated to Western countries before 1997.

China appointed a prominent local businessman, Tung Chee-hwa, first chief executive of Hong Kong. Tung navigated a difficult path between the aspirations of Hong Kong’s residents for self-government and China’s demand for a final say in all major decisions affecting the SAR.

China always prevailed. For example, in 1999 the Chinese National People’s Congress overruled the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals on the right of abode for children with one Hong Kong parent.

Tung resigned in 2005, two years before his second term ended, and was replaced by Donald Tsang, a respected high-ranking civil servant who had risen to prominence under British rule. The PRC remained leery of demands for human rights and democracy by Hong Kong’s citizens.

After the opening of China in 1979, a strong economic bond developed between Hong Kong and China. They became each other’s foremost partners in investment and trade, initially limited to adjoining Guangdong (Kwangtung) province, and after 1992 spreading to other centers in China. While China needed Hong Kong’s managerial skills and capital, Hong Kong benefited from China’s deep, cheap labor pool.

The SAR arrangement also applied to the former small Portuguese colony of Macao, but found no acceptance from the people or government of Taiwan. In 2005 Hong Kong had an estimated population of 6.8 million people who enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in Asia.

Hu Jintao (Hu Chin-t’ao) - Chinese Politician

Hu Jintao (Hu Chin-t’ao) - Chinese Politician
Hu Jintao (Hu Chin-t’ao) - Chinese Politician

Elected president of the People’s Republic of China on March 15, 2003, Hu Jintao was born in December 1942 in Shanghai. He is the first Chinese leader whose career began after the communist victory of 1949.

Hu became active in the Communist Youth League while in high school and graduated with a degree in hydraulic engineering. He worked for a hydropower station in Gansu and then, from 1969 to 1974, worked as an engineer for Sinohydro Engineering Bureau.

In 1974 Hu transferred to the construction department at Gansu. Within a year he earned a promotion to vice senior chief and met up with Song Ping, who would become his mentor. With Song’s help he took over as deputy director of Gansu’s Ministry of Construction in 1980.

In 1981 Hu embarked on training at the Central Party School in Beijing. His political career advanced rapidly when Deng Xiaoping named him to the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992.

Hu’s meteoric career rise continued with his appointment as governor of Guizhou (Kweichow) province in 1985. In 1988 he took over as party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region at a time of great political turmoil. Hu ordered and led a political crackdown in Tibet in early 1989.

During the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), his name emerged as a potential future leader. In his 50s, he became the youngest member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee. In 1993 he became secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, and vice president of China in 1998.

Hu ascended to the office of party general secretary at the 16th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002, at a time of immense change for China. Economically, politically, and socially, China faced difficult issues, including the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the uncertainty of a rapidly globalizing economy.

Huk Rebellion

Huk Rebellion
Huk Rebellion

The Huk Rebellion was a leftist, rurally based armed rebellion in the Philippines, first against Japan and later against the newly independent, U.S.-supported Filipino government. Its main objective was independence and a more equitable society. The movement blossomed during World War II, dissipated in the mid-1950s, then returned during the late 1960s.

The Hukbalahap, or Huks, originated during World War II to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control. Hukbalahap is a contraction of the Tagalog phrase “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon,” which means “People’s Anti-Japanese Army.” (Japan had taken control of the archipelago nation by defeating U.S.-Filipino forces in 1941.)

The Huks found a base of support among the peasants of central Luzon, where approximately 80 percent of local farmers lived under oppressive debt. Led by the socialist Luis Taruc, they advanced an agenda of nationalism and agrarian reform. Taruc had worked as a peasant organizer in the Pampanga region during the 1930s. Throughout the war the Huks trained local farmers in political theory and fighting strategy.

By the end of the conflict the Huks could claim roughly 15,000 armed soldiers and many supporters. Obtaining their weapons mostly from retreating Filipino soldiers, old battlefields, and downed planes, they used their power to block Japanese food and military supplies and to interrupt the collection of taxes. Besides earning widespread popular support, the Huks developed communication networks and fighting tools that would serve them well in later years.

After U.S.-led forces recaptured Luzon from the Japanese in February 1945, the Huks looked forward to independence as promised by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. They formed a political party and won a number of elections in 1947, but were denied their rightful seats in parliament.

In response they once again returned to the mountains and took up arms. In November 1948 the Huks renamed themselves “Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan,” or People’s Liberation Army.

The Huks came close to toppling the government in 1950. However, under the leadership of Ramon Magsaysay, the Filipino government was able to turn the tide on the Huks. Magsaysay pursued a two-pronged approach, combining vigorous military action with successful efforts to reform the army. When Taruc surrendered in 1954, the movement ended. Magsaysay’s campaign became the model for U.S. efforts in Vietnam.

Rural discontent once again pushed the Huks to take up arms against the government in the late 1960s. In August 1969 however, President Ferdinand Marcos, with the aid of the U.S. government, launched a military campaign that crushed them.