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The Cold War

1945: At the Top of the Wave

Converted for the Web from "The Fifty-Year Wound" by Derek Leebaert

The interregnum of the next decades will be a time of distress and of gnashing of teeth. We shall live in the hollow of the historical wave.
--Arthur Koestler, 1944

The war that opened with an order to British officers to sharpen their swords, and that climaxed as proudly modern Germany blitzed into Russia with more horses than trucks, ended in nuclear ash. The world was being transformed by factories that could assemble aircraft faster than wheelbarrows had been made forty years before. Jets, missiles, atomic bombs, and computers were propelled into sustained development by the demands of war. What was not anticipated was how much faster everything was going to change.

This chapter is a snapshot of the way Americans saw themselves in the world of 1945. It emphasizes the utter lack of precedent that soon begot ad hoc, sporadic, reactive, expensive, and open-ended decisions; the reality of Stalinist Russia; and a nation coming simultaneously to believe in a sunny future and a limitless danger.

The Cold War did not metastasize overnight sometime during 1946 or 1947. It was brought about by the ghosts of the Great War of 1914 to 1918, and it took thirty years to attain full, deadly life. The First World War had made the second one almost inescapable: it ensured that politics and war technology, rather than trade and general civilized habits, would frame international relations. It became ever more difficult to achieve a just and enduring world system. Once the precedent of totalitarianism taking over one great country was set, the next likely step was for it to be countered by its mirror image in a rival tyranny. Lenin became Hitler's alibi. Communism enabled Hitler to fulminate about ultimate danger and to posture as the savior of Germany. The Cold War and all its sacrifices would have been extremely unlikely without World War I's destruction of the old European order. Our children will keep hearing the guns of August even as they embrace the wonders ahead.

Within the lifetimes of many people still living today, the twentieth century appeared destined to be the century of collectivism and, if civilization did not take care, of totalitarianism. The 1930s "waves of the future" -- Russian Communism, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism -- seemed only a beginning. Fascist and semifascist regimes arose from Spain to Eastern Europe. In Asia, Japan's ambition was imbued with its own themes of divine preeminence and race mastery. There and in Africa, European elites could still be confident that they controlled most of the world's destinies, and Washington was happy to let them do so, even in the Middle East. On its island continent, America remained remote.

The country had some experience with quarrels over the size and nature of its armed forces. In the 1920s, for instance, General Billy Mitchell had warned about the harm of placing U.S. defense in the hands of the "merchants" -- the "people with something to sell" (apparently not weapons). If Americans didn't look out, he insisted, its soldiers and sailors "might as well stop work." In this view, George F. Babbitt would sacrifice sound preparation for country club dues. All sorts of ironies were being set in place.

During the interwar years, Japan, the only exclusively Pacific power of the early twentieth century, was increasingly seen as America's most likely opponent. However, there was puzzlement over the more daunting British Empire. Was it a bosom partner or a fearsome rival? In deadly serious strategic planning right into the 1930s, the sharpest minds on the U.S. general staff could think of no greater danger than that of six million British troops rolling down from Canada to destroy the competitive challenge from the Midwest, as Japan locked the arms of American power in Asia.

Come the end of 1940, Britain was barely holding out against Hitler, while America was still at peace. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected president in 1932, made plans to lend or lease supplies to Britain, backed by a petition from 170 Americans that had been drafted by Lewis Douglas, a copper millionaire from Douglas, Arizona, and president of Mutual of New York Life Insurance. Douglas also wrote a characteristically intense letter to his friend James Conant, president of Harvard. "Our endeavor and England's endeavor," he mused, "should be aimed at the resuscitation of a world order in which . . . the United States must become the dominant power." He saw little hope in his lifetime if that remained undone. The lofty reply from Massachusetts Hall read, "I believe the only satisfactory solution for the country is for the majority of the thinking people to become convinced that we must be a world power, and the price of being a world power is willingness and capacity to fight when necessary." This correspondence was one grace note in the grand opera of geopolitics, played in the better drawing rooms on the coast of the Northeast. It presumed both that the British Empire was expected to serve as a buffer realm and that influential people of all sorts were anticipating American predominance, whatever that might gain for the United States in a strange new world.

Lewis Douglas's brother-in-law, John J. McCloy, became assistant secretary of war as the United States approached full involvement. Harper's magazine would eventually describe him as "the most influential private citizen in America." McCloy unabashedly injected into this discussion his belief that "I would take a chance on this country using its strength tyrannously." He anticipated some sort of "Pax Americana." An unimaginative man with no sense of irony, he added that "in the course of it the world will become more receptive to the Bill of Rights."

There was agreement among men such as Lewis, McCloy, Conant, publisher Henry Luce, and their friends that the United States was destined to replace the British Empire as the world's foremost economic and military force. Since Britain did not remotely have such a role even at the start of World War II, this shows how far behind the times eminent men can be. Such datedness set the tone for half a century.

Only a few months before the United States entered the war, Luce, the unrivaled media titan of his day, declared that this was to be the "American Century." American or not, the rest of the twentieth century would be shaped by the Cold War, one of whose poles was America. However, such ambitions -- whether voiced by Wall Streeters, by the president of Harvard, or by other enthusiasts who expected to direct in some way a Pax Americana -- were not shared in Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. There was no consensus in 1940, at the war's end in 1945, or as the rest of that bloody decade unfolded, that "America would turn outward and assume global responsibilities," as legend now has it.

The world that these and other grandees hoped to lead -- once the approaching cataclysm had passed -- was expected to be quieter and safer than the one that arrived. They had no inkling of thermonuclear threats, globe-girdling alliances, insular European allies whom they had thought to be world powers, defense budgets in the hundreds of billions, and, above all, the recurring "savage wars of peace," which Rudyard Kipling at the turn of the century had exhorted Americans to take up. Body bags from places like Chosin and Khe Sanh and a national debt in the trillions were inconceivable. That embodiment of Republican faith and statesmanship, Senator Robert Taft, remarked in 1940 that it was about as unlikely that a German army would invade America as it was that an American army would invade Germany, and yet within five years, GIs from Ohio were crossing the Rhine. For the next decades, the best-informed people would be eating their words about whatever political conjunction or technological achievement they had previously deemed unthinkable.

Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and one of his predecessors, General Douglas MacArthur, military adviser in the Philippines until five months before Pearl Harbor, were the two curiously contrasted American geniuses of World War II. They would have been at least equally appalled had it been prophesied to them as eager young cadets during the late 1890s that in their old age, they would have to come to terms with the power to end the human race. This was not soldiering, which they viewed as an exercise of discipline and sacrifice. Nor did it have anything to do with their studies, such as understanding Clausewitz's writings on the capacity to harness violent nonreason with the would-be stylized workings of state policy. From the beginning of history, strategists at their most desperate had never contemplated mutual destruction.

On November 29, 1941, a picture of the USS Arizona was displayed in the Army-Navy game program, with a caption stating that "no battleship has ever been sunk by air attack." Eight days later, at least 1,177 men went to their deaths on that very ship in one fiery moment. A luncheon meeting of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs listened raptly on Sunday, December 7, to several renowned visitors, such as Count Sforza, Fascist Italy's most eminent political exile, explaining how Japan was too intelligent to do anything but accommodate the United States in the Pacific. As the meeting adjourned, news arrived that the fleet was burning.

That bright Sunday dawn awoke a fear that would endure throughout the Cold War and after: one moment's inattention, and the unparryable blow might fall. The country's leaders were learning to expect anything. Nothing could be certain, nothing secure. At Harvard, nearly everyone had been intensely isolationist. The most prominent exception was politics professor William Yandell Elliott. His colleagues derided him for his sense of emergency and for advising the Roosevelt administration on military affairs. The following day, the faculty gathered in Memorial Hall, dedicated to the university's Civil War dead. They would hear Roosevelt declare war together. As Elliott entered, he was greeted with rapturous applause. Many beliefs would be changing fast: the ablest people had no idea of what was and was not possible, of what would happen next.

Before America entered the war, the public had few opinions about either how the world worked or what their country might need from it. The America that fought the war was still homespun and often ill informed, its citizens and even leaders not knowing much about the rest of the globe. GIs going to Europe were incredulous that the Queen Elizabeth was not American; what other nation could build on such a scale? After two years of fighting, nearly a third of the country did not know that the Philippines had fallen, and twice that many had never heard of the Atlantic Charter. Somewhat more than half thought that the United States had been a member of the League of Nations. Public ignorance might have been the same or worse in France or Italy, but those countries were not about to change history.

Winston Churchill chose the name United Nations from a line by Byron. Other international arrangements also born during the war would become significant to restoring international prosperity. The Bretton Woods monetary conference of July 1944, attended by representatives of forty nations, pegged gold to the dollar at $35 an ounce, with the various national currencies connecting to the dollar like spokes to the hub of a wheel. The American economy was thereby recognized as the centerpiece of international exchange. To pay for postwar recovery and to ensure currency stability, corollary agreements reached by the contracting parties at this New Hampshire resort also created the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank, which McCloy would head) and the International Monetary Fund: "This Fund that you call a Bank," noted the sardonic economist and negotiator John Maynard Keynes, "and this Bank you call a Fund." Imprecision was of little significance in the urgent present.

Breathtaking inventions were coming into being toward war's end, as the gates to progress seemed to fly open for a generation that was encountering "thinking machines," jets, penicillin, and atomic energy. The industrial revolution of rail, steel, telegraph, and turbine was being leapfrogged by that of radio and automobile. Bizarre new materials were undermining the certainties of statesmen -- plutonium, for instance, which its discoverer would say "is so unusual as to approach the unbelievable." Nearly $2 billion of that era's money was going into the Manhattan Project for building the atomic bomb -- in present-day terms (reckoning not only inflation but a sixfold increase in the size of gross domestic product) about $86 billion. And it was done in secret.

As victory approached, America's economy was booming. It nearly doubled in the war years, with the country having been pulled out of the Depression by war far more than by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Many Americans nonetheless feared that this was a mere digression. Always a people inclined to overvalue recent experience, they recalled that war booms had habitually been followed by peace busts. Whether consumer demand, as well as unrealized new technologies pent up for a decade or more, could now keep the ball rolling was anyone's guess. Technologically, America was optimistic; economically, it was hypochondriac.

Other world leaders, whether in London or Moscow, had little faith in America's financial stability. Men of sixty could remember a long chain of U.S. excesses: the economic crisis of 1893; the alarms of inflation as manically urged by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and his "cross of gold"; the roller coaster of the 1920s, when U.S. tariff walls made it impossible to settle European debts. A history of fevered boom and bust in international markets can be charted at least as far back as Charles Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, who fears that the riches the Ghost has shown him are mere "United States securities." Perhaps America's moment would be a fleeting one.

In 1945, Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station to take over the Russian Revolution was about as recent as the end of the Vietnam War is today. The organizers of victory during that bewildering autumn easily remembered that a handful of Marxist dogmatists had just hammered a large part of the world into strange new shapes. Now city-evaporating weapons arrived seemingly out of nowhere. Who could tell what was next? Einstein himself had come late to the belief that nuclear fission was possible. Anything in politics or human behavior was beginning to seem likely, whether through the evils of totalitarianism, the wonders of science, or, even more unsettling, the binding of the two.

Stalin's mass tyranny was troublingly familiar, but its secrets and cruelties ensured that virtually no one knew what was actually happening within. Even now that the Soviet Union is on the ash heap of history, we know little about the inner workings of the Politburo, the KGB, or the Ministry of Defense. What was this place that the United States faced on the other side of the globe, the land to which, since 1941, it had provided $11 billion in aid -- not only munitions, thousands of bombers, and hundreds of thousands of trucks, but also millions of tons of food and clothing, as well as entire factories -- and which in turn had ripped the heart out of the Wehrmacht? To the United States, Russia was not unlike what China seemed to the Russians: vast, ancient, pitiless, unfathomable, and with its own (unlikely to be pleasant) agenda.

The Soviet Union, during its Great Patriotic War, had lost around 27 million combatants and civilians, many of them murdered by Stalin's own secret police under Lavrenti Beria, the other Georgian who smilingly administered mass extermination. ("Our Himmler," Stalin called him during talks with FDR at Yalta, speaking of the Reichsfuhrer SS.) Even at the moment that Hitler shot himself, the Reich had yet to surpass the numbers of murders inflicted on the world by Stalin, who, appropriately, had from August 1939 until Russia was invaded in June 1941 been a more faithful ally of the Nazis than Mussolini. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, published in 1943, was the one serious imaginative treatment of a Soviet system of precisely the sort that had produced this worst of all wars -- a Great Terror too immense to neglect (though many tried), too hard to understand. We know about Stalin's techniques, his foreign policy, and the extreme limitations on his intellectual processes. But there is no insight even today as to what drove the man to destroy somewhere between 17 million and 22 million of his people just during the 1930s. Who would bet on his staying sane, in the most crudely operational sense of not actually starting another world war, by the time it was thought he had atomic weapons?

The Soviet Union came to appear at once terrifyingly inescapable and fundamentally unreal. It was not like confronting the Third Reich, or even the USSR that Lenin left at his death in 1924. At least in Germany, the high command, the diplomatic service, Krupp, I. G. Farben, and generally the universities were in the hands of people who would also have been in place under the Kaiser. At least some aspects of Hitler's Germany had been possible to understand and, had the will been there, to prepare for. Alternatively, so little was known about the Soviet Union and the people who ran it -- such as how much of its workforce was slave labor, even if 15 million, or 8 percent of the population, was a good guess.

George Orwell was finally able to publish Animal Farm in August 1945, so pointed a tale of revolution betrayed that it had repeatedly been rejected for publication during the war, including by the reactionary T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber. Orwell, a staunch socialist, was attacking hypocrisy on the democratic left no less than Stalinism. The book's revolutionaries are clever pigs who turn into a master race. In the showdown between men and animals, only the pig supremo, Napoleon -- greedy, paranoid, grandiose, and clearly modeled on Stalin -- stands up to human explosives, as had Stalin himself to the Germans.

This "fairy story," as Orwell subtitled it, is intended to show how the most exalted ideals are degraded by despotic power. It also underscores the democracies' ambivalence toward Stalin as representative of a people unbelievably long-suffering, decidedly brave, unconquerably determined, so recently allied, and so suddenly threatening. Two months after publication, Orwell coined a phrase to describe the new landscape: "Cold War."

Well into 1945, the White House and most of America's leaders remained optimistic about Russia's intentions. Come V-E Day, the West was watching half of Europe being assimilated into a system whose plans were not just unknown but deeply concealed. The political obscurity was bad enough, but the combination of size, technology, and reach was truly chilling. Stalin added nearly 100 million souls in Eastern Europe to his 200 million Soviet subjects, and he undertook a violent campaign to drag back all displaced persons born in any part of his realm. Key members of liberal non-Communist political parties disappeared in the night and fog of the occupied nations. More than 1 million of his German prisoners of war also simply vanished, all unaccounted for except several thousand who had been classified as war criminals.

Totalitarianism considers that nothing has countervailing rights against it and acts on that assumption. In Stalinism, it became increasingly easier to conclude that civilization faced another "odious apparatus," as Churchill had called Nazism. Extreme violence had become a fact of life.

There was a real possibility that such a deadly ascendancy would cast itself over Western Europe. This is a point now much debated, but nothing had stopped Hitler, ruler of a lesser power, between the Channel and Moscow, and only his bad judgment had halted him there. What made the Soviet Union all the more alarming was that its international reach might not even require such an assault. Anything like a "National Socialist International" was absurd and could be ridiculed by P. G. Wodehouse's portrayal of the blustering Spode and his farcical band of Home Counties "Black Shorts." The Communist International was by no means so preposterous. The Red Army did not have to keep heading west for Stalin to extend his hand.

An hour before the Gestapo shot him, a Communist leader in Paris had scratched on the wall of his cell that he was going out "to prepare the tomorrows that sing." (Andre Malraux seeks to catch this spirit in La Condition humaine.) It was still possible for communism as a Western popular movement to appeal to the noblest hopes and to offer itself as a barrier to the deepest fears. Its epitaph was unconsciously written by Jean-Paul Sartre: "To be unsparing in telling the truth about the USSR was to deprive the automobile workers of hope." In France and Italy at war's end, Communists in the government coalitions and in the big trade unions were candid about where their loyalties lay.

Much of Europe at the end of the war -- those parts not occupied by the Red Army -- seemed to be tottering into chaos. Inspecting Germany's devastation, McCloy described it as "unparalleled in history unless one goes back to the Roman Empire, and even that may not have been as great in economic upheaval." On the other side of the globe, and two days after Hiroshima, Stalin had finally declared war on Japan. Carleton Swift of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) accompanied Mao Tse-tung's great Marshal Chu Teh to Manchukuo, where every industrial plant built by the Japanese had been stripped bare by the Russians. Above all, he recalls "desolate silence except for the grinding of Chu Teh's teeth." This sort of vicious world did not look particularly welcoming for an American Century.

After the terrible years just past, that the Soviet Union should be thoroughly armed, thoroughly suspicious, and even rapacious was understandable. But Russia's visceral fear for its safety had nothing to do with packing whole nationalities on to their doom, with the deadly show trials of Eastern European Communist cadres, or with ongoing disappearances, such as that of the heroic thirty-one-year-old Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who likely perished in the secret police's Lubyanka Prison two years after he was kidnapped in Budapest toward the war's end. Most sinister because most crazy, Russia's own distinguished genetics profession was destroyed in order to forward the catastrophic doctrines of Trofim Lysenko, charlatan-biologist-cum-secret-policeman, who insisted that Charles Darwin was wrong -- his purpose being to prove that "socialist man" could rapidly be developed. Something far stranger was at work in the Soviet Union than the currents of Russian history or the dogmas of Marxism-Leninism. Indeed, the notable Marxist-Leninists, such as Bukharin and Pashukanis, had all been shot. This behavior was not geopolitics: it was despotism run frantic.

Yet from the Soviet Union -- a political order based on terror and forced on a much-invaded country -- it could have been assumed that such ferociousness was how things worked, world without end. "Neither war nor peace," Lenin had said of Soviet dealings with the capitalist powers right after the First World War. Whereas that situation seemed unlikely to be bearable or, in the longer run, even sustainable by democracies, the Cold War was not a new experience for land-besieged Russia or revolutionary Bolshevism. For Stalin, it even possessed a certain homecoming quality.

Eric Hoffer, in Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, tells of celebrating on the docks on V-E Day and of a longshoreman friend who anticipated that the heroic ally Russia would be the next power to confront. Wouldn't the kid most energetic in downing the schoolyard bully promptly take his place?

By V-J Day, however, Abraham Lincoln's belief that the United States was "the last best hope of earth" seemed an invocation not just of the republican dream, but of a burdened world at last set materially free. One of the best reflections of 1945 America is On the Town, the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein musical celebrating the strut and swagger of a confident nation beating back tyrants and saving democracy. Its citizens at that time were prepared on the one hand to become more engaged commercially with the world, while on the other (having become newly instructed in totalitarian horror), they were intent on keeping its more sordid political and military aspects at arm's length.

The United States by its mere existence exercised an effortless leverage. It had 7 percent of the world's population in 1945, but it possessed nearly half of the world's manufacturing and productive vitality. What horizon need be imposed on its vision? The country was alive with strength and purpose, and there was so much to put this strength and purpose to. Americans had spent more than $230 billion to fight the war -- more than the equivalent of the (war-expanded) gross domestic product for 1945 and more than $2 trillion in today's dollars. They had been hoping for a good life since the start of the Depression. Now, with victory, the scientific knowledge developed during the war catalyzed the tremendous pent-up consumer demand and the backlogs of U.S. industry. These two forces hit Main Street together, further driven by an extraordinary reassertion of fertility, the unlocking of wartime savings in bank accounts and liberty bonds, and a crackle of popular electronics.

After nearly fifteen years of postponement, people believed that they could safely be caught up in a whirlwind of change that in less purposeful times would have been demoralizing. By contrast, so much deemed to be provisional during the Depression and the war continued to be so after the outbreak of peace. Among these things were agricultural subsidies, price controls on railroad tickets, public money lavished on science and technology, spy services woven out of exotic material, pension vesting, and industry's military contracts. Unprecedented roles for government were already coming to be accepted as normal. After all, government was clearly the patron of so much that was worthwhile. For instance, a new American middle class was about to be made by the GI Bill of Rights, which allocated $3.7 billion for higher education and (white suburban) home buying at a time when annual per capita disposable income was $1,074. It was a superb investment -- so superb as to convince people that all such government outlays could have corresponding benefits.

Scientific American would later distill the surge of all this energy into the telling phrase "acceleration of history." From now on, history would speed forward, bringing about an ever more pervasive technological -- and therefore social, economic, political, and military -- transformation. Less justifiably, an outsize faith was being placed in some newly applied fields of study, such as economics. An awkward balance was struck between the social and the natural sciences. For example, absurdly too much was expected of analytic psychology, whereas too little attention was given to, say, neurology. For the moment, these were merely details; the world appeared to be made for America. Yet all too soon, this prospect was undercut by a renewed struggle. Acute hope was clouded by a sense that something had gone terribly wrong.

The rest of the world was exhausted, and much of it needed to be propped up. That was an emergency exercise well fitted to the national spirit. However, the country soon found itself far deeper in world events than even exponents of the American Century had dreamed. By the fall of 1945, there was a rough consensus for a more alert, more generally engaged foreign policy. America would stop things from happening -- tariff-precipitated depressions and the triumphs of power-mad dictators, for example -- but such a strategy would entail doing other things. How many? For how long? At what price? Much of the hoopla about "the leadership of the world" implied that the world would come to learn at America's feet -- not that America would plod along the globe's most dangerous roads and jungle trails.

It is strange that a single American generation would so rapidly move into the world to pursue an ideal of national defense that hinged on protecting far-off places about which it knew little and ultimately backing those commitments with immensely destructive devices about which almost everyone knew even less. As remarkable is that a public with opinions still so ill formed would, however grumblingly, drag from its pockets the trillions of dollars to be spent over the next forty-plus years. One need not believe in conspiracies at the Council on Foreign Relations or within a military-industrial complex to detect something incredible about this venture. "The counterintuitive," often remarked Noam Chomsky, as bitter an enemy as the whole enterprise ever had, "is always the most interesting."

To what extent America's "rise to globalism" was reluctant continues to be argued by historians. Yet the very word globalism, implying a doctrine and a state of mind, is tricky. America's amazing outreach between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima had been global, not globalist. Its forces had struck around the world because the country's enemies were there. There was no purpose beyond battle. What happened once these enemies were defeated was a slow, reluctant engagement, nearly always trying to substitute technology and money from afar for an actual presence.

By the end of 1945, five motivating influences bore down on the assumptions most Americans had about the world. One was speed, the simplest and most obvious acceleration. No one other than science fiction writers had believed in atomic bombs before 1935, but in August 1945, the bomb was there for the world to see, the simple greatest fact of power. In 1935, no one had realized that a fortress could be taken by air assault. At Eben Emael, on the Belgian border, German commandos showed that it could be done. But by 1950, such a fantastic operation had become old-fashioned and would have been disastrous against any competently prepared enemy. And by then, the Soviet Union had its own bomb, well before almost everyone except Stalin expected. "If it works, it's obsolete," General Dwight D. Eisenhower was fond of saying. It was a time of incredible promise and of incredible threat -- in that sense, the best of times and the worst of times.

Another influence was a sense of luck. The Allies had won because they had more people, a greater economic base, and the advantage of being the forces of liberation and resistance. At the vulnerable outset, they had had enough nonessential space to lose in the short term, as the Germans had learned in Russia and the Japanese had discovered in the Pacific. Even so, the margin of victory had still been heart-stoppingly slender. A couple of decisions the other way by Hitler and his generals or by a pair of Japanese admirals, and the outcome might have been different. No country -- not the richest and remotest -- could rely any longer on apparently heaven-sent good fortune. Otto von Bismarck's irritable assessment that God looks after fools, drunkards, and the United States of America could not carry into the atomic age.

There was also the influence of size, and here there was a contradiction in American perceptions. The world had become much smaller, whether it be the electronic world of the fascinated consumer or the thermonuclear world of the alarmed citizen. Boys from Butte and Joliet were crashing on the Hump, drowning off the island of Ascension, and bringing brides home from Okinawa. Technology was pulling people together. Yet it also became apparent that the sheer bigness of geography could lift certain countries into another order of magnitude from those historic entities Japan, France, Britain, and Germany -- all a great deal smaller than Texas. The United States, Russia, and China are in a class by themselves, as is India. Size can multiply the components of power, and this would be the age of continental might: populations, resources, and, if worst came to worst, capacity to absorb nuclear punishment.

Additionally, there was the realization that security was something that had to be worked at, to be managed. Clearly, Americans could not turn their backs on the world and return to their business of doing business. They had done that after the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War; during the 1870s, when America was a tariff-wrapped autarky; and after 1919, when the country withdrew behind moralist rhetoric and interest-ridden protectionism. Not again.

Finally, it was self-evident that Europe had once more -- and perhaps terminally -- made a mess of things. Life would only become worse if these exhausted, discredited sovereignties were left to their own tortured histories of unsteady power balances, mercantilism, colonialism, and military adventure. The United States trusted neither its friends not its former enemies to rebuild themselves properly. It had reasons.

Such an anxious understanding of the world was darkened by the loss of the sturdy, if rarely tested, axioms that had guarded American foreign policy from the early days of the Republic: no entangling alliances and the avoidance of Old World quarrels. These axioms were being replaced by new generalities: "Munich," the assumption that any concession brings catastrophe; "free trade," a belief vulnerable to being compromised for the sake of other foreign policy objectives or of not offending rich domestic interests; and, increasingly, "collective security," rather a wet firecracker if taken literally.

Nor was it apparent whom could be relied on for insight into this postwar kaleidoscope: the WASP upper classes, which until the Depression had seemed to gather economic decisions effortlessly into their hands; the scientific elite, so largely a mass of Central European genius, which had spilled into the startled university towns; or the generals and admirals who were beginning to move into high government and corporate positions.

Americans were willing to pay to ensure that there would be two potent mediating bodies between them and everyone else: the United Nations, to be sure, and the British Empire, that globally deployed, high-tech entity that was presented as the archetype of a "super power" when a Columbia University professor coined that term during the last year of the war. To most Americans, the British Empire at the end of World War II appeared to be second among world powers, perhaps third, the more or less consistent American ally in a generation's struggle to save the world from its worst predators. The territory of the Empire and Commonwealth was half again as large as the Soviet Union, and its population at least double. Britain itself perhaps held the lead in jet engines, computers, and atomic research. Maybe it could be America's "outer fortress," as it was soon called by Senator Hubert Humphrey, and would uphold its (quite chimerical) role as maintainer of the Pax Britannica.

No one in America was ready to substitute U.S. strength for whatever worldwide peacekeeping services the British Empire might provide as part of its nature. The story of this "outer fortress" is a strangely Jamesian one of barely uttered commitment, unclear reasons and objectives, and seemingly bold but ultimately empty gestures. Like the British Empire, America was deeply and historically averse to the well-known costs of establishing (and maintaining) balances of power. Island nations, after all, have a peculiar view of such balances: they find their part to be agreeable only after the main equilibrium has been hammered out exhaustingly by others. Unlike Britain, the United States of the next four decades rarely kept its eyes on the stakes of power -- losing so much by its discontinuities and distractions, yet finally winning by its unparalleled ability to adapt.

The contest that America was about to enter would become by far the greatest cold war ever. Hot wars have horizons: roughly speaking, the closer the horizon, the more destructive the war. Cold wars -- for instance, the war for control of North America between the British and French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or the nineteenth-century Anglo-Russian "Great Game" in Central Asia -- can continue for decades but historically have not drained the societies involved. In the years ahead, however, America would largely end up standing alone against a terrible opponent. The Cold War dragged on -- expensive, sleepless, and, at its worst junctures, primed to produce new dangers that threatened to dwarf the World War II cataclysms that had brought it about in the first place. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick" (Proverbs 13:12).

All the uncertainties that arose in the early winter of 1945?1946 and that presaged the dangers to come for most of the century did not lead to final catastrophe. Some bloodshed was expected, and it came. But it was not a death grapple on the European plain or a nuclear haze over China. Instead, it came in the form of vast subwars, weird hybrids of confrontation. There was an endlessness to this struggle, which combined with a global battlefield to make the Cold War so wounding.

At the end of the century, the Pentagon issued a certificate of Cold War meritorious service to Americans who had served in the military between 1945 and 1991. Smithsonian museums also describe the Cold War as covering those years. But the dates are not so tidy. Although there was no shortage of East-West antagonism in 1945, it took a year after World War II ended for tensions to freeze between Britain and the Soviet Union, and more than another year for them to freeze between Washington and Moscow. The world between 1946 and 1950 went back into "some sort of nightmare of aggression we thought we had buried by disposing of Hitler," the hard-boiled British Labour Party minister Herbert Morrison said. History's greatest war had been replaced by history's least plausible peace.

Copyright © 2002 by Derek Leebaert. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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World War II posters and prints from AllPosters