It goes like this – from the dawn of recorded civilization, the affairs of humankind largely centered around the Mediterranean – the inland sea of the ancient world. At the beginning of the Age of Exploration, the Atlantic Ocean took its place and became the inland sea of the modern world. And now, as of the mid-point of the 20th Century or so, the Pacific Ocean becomes the inland sea of tomorrow’s world; the body of water around which many of the most consequential developments and conflicts will occur.
The Pacific is the largest thing on the planet: 9,000 miles from top to bottom and 10,600 miles from east to west. In places, its depths reach more than 7 miles. It contains 45% of all the earth’s surface waters. Its total area is some sixty-four million square miles – an incomprehensibly large entity, and yet the most spacious approach to enter the ocean is just 300 miles wide. It is a beast contained by coast lines and ice cliffs, tropical ports and barrier reefs. Or, as the poet Robinson Jeffers calls it, “the staring unsleeping Eye of the earth.”
Simon Winchester’s incredible book, ‘Pacific‘ begins with the year 1950 and then works its way to present, demonstrating just how incredibly important the ocean has become to our future. Along the way, we learn some eye-opening facts about the recent past:
* The United States military spent the 1950’s blowing up old battleships and entire islands with atom bombs, hydrogen bombs and thermonuclear bombs – sometimes forcibly relocating islanders who lived near (or on) ideal test sites.
* Sony created the world’s first consumer electronics giant with a simple transistor radio that changed the world.
* Surfing was introduced to the world outside of Hawaii because of a 1907 Jack London essay. The first surfer in the United States was an Irishman in Los Angeles!
* With the Japanese army surrendering all the territories it had conquered in WWII’s aftermath, the Americans and Russians made a deal about where the influence of each would begin and end. North Korea was created by an American colonel who randomly scrawled a line across a map and said “the Thirty-Eighth parallel ought to do it” in 1945. We are still dealing with the consequences of this hurried decision today.
* The 30 year war for Vietnamese independence claimed the lives of 160,000 European and American fighters. Over 1.5 million North and South Vietnamese were killed.
* When Typhoon Haiyan, the most savage storm ever recorded, swept through the Philippines in the fall of 2013, US naval forces were on hand almost immediately to carry out the rescue effort: 2200 US military personnel, 13 warships, 21 helicopters, the nuclear-powered carrier USS George Washington, a submarine filled with water and supplies, the distribution of of 2000 tons of food, blankets, tents, generators and water purifiers at a cost of $21 million. Beijing offered $100,000 in aid and sent a hospital ship that arrived long after it was needed.
* In 1972, Australia elected its own version of Donald Trump, who soared to power on the support of the fed-up working-class. He drastically remade the country, taking charge of all Australian ministries in his first ten days in power, pulling the country’s troops out of Vietnam, ending conscription, freeing draft-dodgers from prison, supporting equal pay for men and women, increasing school funding and reserving land for the Aborigines. Next he introduces free university schooling, no-fault divorce law, voting at age 18, universal healthcare and a major tax reform. The breakneck pace of change creates many enemies, and his administration is destroyed within 3 years.
* Scientists in a submersible discover something in the depths of the Pacific that changes our entire conception of how the earth was formed and even the nature of life itself when gushings of gas and superheated water are discovered blasting up from an underwater mountain range.
* The Pacific Ocean is the origin point of the entire planet’s weather and it is the super-regulator of earth’s climate.
* The biggest threat to peace on earth is not the imperial ambition of Russia or the unpredictability of the North Korean despot. Rather it is the contention around an area on Chinese naval maps marked as the Nine-Dash Line. Whether or not the world will allow China to carry out the full extent of its plans in the Pacific might be the only question that matters.
Winchester’s ‘Pacific’ is the kind of book that sticks with you after you’ve put it down, inspiring you to want to read more about many of the topics he covers in such kaleidoscopic fashion. I highly recommend you dive in.