Aftermath of World War II

period after the conclusion of World War II

The Aftermath of World War II was the beginning of a new era for all countries involved, defined by the decline of all European colonial empires and simultaneous rise of two superpowers: the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (USA). Allies during World War II, the US and the USSR became competitors on the world stage and engaged in the Cold War, so called because it never resulted in overt, declared total war between the two powers but was instead characterized by espionage, political subversion and proxy wars. Western Europe and Japan were rebuilt through the American Marshall Plan whereas Central and Eastern Europe fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and eventually behind an "Iron Curtain". Europe was divided into a US-led Western Bloc and a Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. Internationally, alliances with the two blocs gradually shifted, with some nations trying to stay out of the Cold War through the Non-Aligned Movement. The War also saw a nuclear arms race between the two superpowers; part of the reason that the Cold War never became a "hot" war was that the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear deterrents against each other, leading to a mutually assured destruction (MAD) standoff.

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  • When British and then American troops moved into southern Italy, they simply reinstated the fascist order—the industrialists. But the big problem came when the troops got to the north, which the Italian resistance had already liberated. The place was functioning—industry was running. We had to dismantle all of that and restore the old order. ... Next we worked on destroying the democratic process. The left was obviously going to win the elections; it had a lot of prestige from the resistance, and the traditional conservative order had been discredited. The US wouldn't tolerate that.
    • Noam Chomsky, "How the Nazis Won the War," Secrets, Lies and Democracy (1994) in How the World Works, p. 193
  • We must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have answers to the problems, which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples. Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
    • George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff, "Memo PPS23", written 28 February 1948, declassified 17 June 1974
  • In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
    • George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff, "Memo PPS23", written 28 February 1948, declassified 17 June 1974
  • People born during and directly after World War II grew up in a world transformed by horror, and this made them see the world in a completely different way. The great lesson of Nazi genocide for the postwar generation was that everyone has an obligation to speak up in the face of wrong and that any excuse for silence will, in the merciless hindsight of history, appear as pathetic and culpable as the Germans in the war crimes trials, pleading that they were obeying orders. This was a generation that as children learned of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Children who were told constantly throughout their childhood that at any moment the adults might decide to have a war that would end life on earth. While an older generation justified the nuclear bombing of Japan because it had shortened the war, the new generation once again, as children, had seen the pictures and they viewed it very differently. They had also seen the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions on television because the United States still did aboveground testing. Americans and Europeans, both Eastern and Western, grew up with the knowledge that the United States, which was continuing to build bigger and better bombs, was the only country that had ever actually used one. And it talked about doing it again, all the time—in Korea, in Cuba, in Vietnam. The children born in the 1940s in both superpower blocs grew up practicing covering themselves up in the face of nuclear attack. Savio recalled being ordered under his desk at school: “I ultimately took degrees in physics so even then I asked myself questions like ‘Will this actually do the job?’ ” Growing up during the cold war had the same effect on most of the children of the world. It made them fearful of both blocs. This was one of the reasons European, Latin American, African, and Asian youth were so quick and so resolute in their condemnation of U.S. military action in Vietnam. By and large, theirs was not a support of communists, but a distaste for either bloc imposing its power. To American youth, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the lives ruined by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings, taught them to distrust the U.S. government.
  • And it took the experience of yet more illiberal regimes and failed democracies—by 1941, there were just eleven democracies left amidst the carnage of the Second World War—before the commitment to combining liberal values and the institutions of democratic equality was reaffirmed amid the “general political fatigue” of the postwar moment. A more consistent set of liberal democratic political institutions locked into place across the Western countries after 1945, binding them more closely together as it did so. These same countries exceeded even their prewar trajectory of industrialization and they now bureaucratized as well. The resulting era of prosperity—“the Golden Age,” les trente glorieuses, the wirtschaftswunder, the miracolo economico: most countries had a term for it—was always more golden for some than it was forever. It also unfolded in the shadow of the struggle between capitalism and the communist world: indeed, it was significantly shaped by that struggle. But it nonetheless provided an unprecedented degree of political stability and economic progress that left its mark in “the institutions and the manners,” as Tocqueville put it, of the Western nations. The gap between rich and poor narrowed and for many there was a sense that the Western world’s political compass was pointing in the right direction. People felt they knew where they stood and that they had a good chance of getting to where they wanted to be. This is not at all what many now think of when they think about democracy today. For all its achievements, the modern democratic state has been hollowed out. The markets upon which the delivery of political outcomes has come to rely are volatile and encourage short-term thinking. Today's citizens are garlanded with an extended panoply of political rights, yet they routinely lack the social protections once taken for granted by their elders. The people grow resentful of the political elite's detachment, while the public domain through which democratic voice is exercised has been parceled out to the highest bidder. A thinly scraped notion of liberty has gained the upper hand over equality. Something has changed, in short, and in the turmoil of the present it may be changing again.
    • Simon Reid-Henry, Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971-2017 (2019), pp. 3-4

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