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.


  • Did it have to come to this? The paradox is that when Europe was less united, it was in many ways more independent. The leaders who ruled in the early stages of integration had all been formed in a world before the global hegemony of the United States, when the major European states were themselves imperial powers, whose foreign policies were self-determined. These were people who had lived through the disasters of the Second World War, but were not crushed by them. This was true not just of a figure like De Gaulle, but of Adenauer and Mollet, of Eden and Heath, all of whom were quite prepared to ignore or defy America if their ambitions demanded it. Monnet, who did not accept their national assumptions, and never clashed with the US, still shared their sense of a future in which Europeans could settle their own affairs, in another fashion. Down into the 1970s, something of this spirit lived on even in Giscard and Schmidt, as Carter discovered. But with the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s, and the arrival in power in the 1990s of a postwar generation, it faded. The new economic doctrines cast doubt on the state as a political agent, and the new leaders had never known anything except the Pax Americana. The traditional springs of autonomy were gone.
    • Perry Anderson, "Depicting Europe", London Review of Books (20 September 2007)
  • Finally, the development of Keynesian economics and, after the war, its gradually increasing application changed the nature of the efficiency discussion. In true Hegelian fashion, capitalist instability and the socialist counterattack seemed to be synthesized: it seemed possible to have an economy that retained much of capitalist drive and initiative and yet gave room for the government to intervene to avoid at least the worst inefficiencies of unemployment and the idling of other resources. I accepted provisionally what seemed to be a widespread consensus in the euphoria of postwar economic growth. The state had an active role to play in maintaining effective demand and in dealing with the many imperfections of the market system revealed by theoretical welfare economics— the overcoming of market failures and monopoly and the realization of economies of scale. These interventions should take the form of relatively impersonal measures, taxes and expenditures, rather than detailed controls and direct regulation. The higher taxes meant that the government was automatically engaged in redistributing, and some of us felt that it should go much further.
    • Kenneth Arrow, "A Cautious Case for Socialism", Dissent (Fall 1978)
  • The termination of the Bretton Woods financial system and the collapse of the Soviet Union followed in the wake of centuries of capital-driven globalization. Neoliberal capitalism has become the new paradigm of permanent growth. The implications of the neoliberal stage of capitalist marketization are enormous, as capitalism universalizes its rule, throws off "superfluous" and "injurious" constraints on "free trade," and increasingly realizes the goal of purity of function and purpose through the autonomization of the economy from society, so that the social is the economic. Over the last few decades, Takis Fotopoulos notes, "A neoliberal consensus has swept over the advanced capitalist world and has replaced the social-democratic consensus of the early post-war period." Not only have "existing socialist societies" been negated in the global triumph of capitalism, so too have social democracies and the bulk of institutional networks designed to protect individuals from the ravages of privatization and the relinquishment of responsibilities to people in need to case them into barbaric barrenness of the "survival-of-the-fittest."
    • Steven Best, "Introduction: Pathologies of Power and the Rise of the Global Industrial Complex", in Steven Best; Richard Kahn; Anthony J. Nocella II; Peter McLaren (eds.). The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination. 2011. p. xviii
  • 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
  • Like the nuclear war that never came, the revival and eventual triumph of democratic capitalism was a surprising development that few people on either side of the ideological divide in 1945 would have foreseen. Circumstances during the first half of the 20th century had provided physical strength and political authority to dictatorships. Why should the second half have been different? The reasons had less to do with any fundamental shift in the means of production, as a Marxist historian might have argued, than with a striking shift in the attitude of the United States toward the international system. Despite having built the world's most powerful and diversified economy, Americans had shown remarkably little interest, prior to 1941, in how the rest of the world was governed. Repressive regimes elsewhere might be regrettable, but they could hardly harm the United States. Even involvement in World War I had failed to alter this attitude, as Wilson discovered to his embarrassment and chagrin. What did change it, immediately and irrevocably, was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That event shattered the illusion that distance ensured safety: that it did not matter who ran what on the other side of the ocean. The nation's security was now at risk, and because future aggressors with air and naval power could well follow the Japanese example, the problem was not likely to go away. There was little choice, then, but for the United States to assume global responsibilities. Those required winning the war against Japan and GermanyHitler having declared war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor—but they also meant planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.
  • 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.
  • George Santayana's famous “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is one of those overused dictums politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound. It is true, however, that history reminds us usefully about the sorts of situations that have caused trouble in the past. Allied leaders in World War II were determined that, this time, Germany and the other Axis powers would not be able to claim that they had never been defeated on the battlefield. Allied policy was one of unconditional surrender, and Germany, Japan, and Italy were all occupied at the end of the war and serious attempts, largely successful, were made to remodel their societies so that they would no longer be undemocratic and militaristic. When someone complained that such treatment was like the savage peace the Romans imposed on Carthage, the American general Mark Clark remarked that no one heard much of the Carthaginians these days.
  • Western societies have been fortunate in the last decades; since the end of the Second World War they have not experienced war first-hand. True, Western countries have sent military to fight around the world, in Asia, in the Korean or Vietnam Wars or in Afghanistan, in parts of the Middle East or in Africa, but only a very small minority of people living in the West have been touched directly by those conflicts. Millions in those regions of course have had very different experiences and there has been no year since 1945 when there has not been fighting in one part of the world or another. For those of us who have enjoyed what is often called the Long Peace it is all too easy to see war as something that others do, perhaps because they are at a different stage of development. We in the West, so we complacently assume, are more peaceable. Writers such as the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker have popularised the view that Western societies have become less violent over the past two centuries and that the world as a whole has seen a decline in deaths from war. So while we formally mourn the dead from our past wars once a year, we increasingly see war as something that happens when peace – the normal state of affairs – breaks down. At the same time we can indulge a fascination with great military heroes and their battles of the past; we admire stories of courage and daring exploits in war; the shelves of bookshops and libraries are packed with military histories; and movie and television producers know that war is always a popular subject. The public never seems to tire of Napoleon and his campaigns, Dunkirk, D-Day or the fantasies of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. We enjoy them in part because they are at a safe distance; we are confident that we ourselves will never have to take part in war.
  • Just as in the 1930s, world capitalism, as it had existed until then, had reached a dead-end, and the need for it to be altered for the sake of preserving the system itself, was emphasised by many perceptive bourgeois thinkers, exactly in a similar manner contemporary world capitalism too has reached a dead-end and cannot continue as before. [...] Any change in capitalism, however, including a revival of the so-called "welfare capitalism" of the post-War period, will entail a loosening of the hegemony of international finance capital and hence will face stiff opposition from it. The fact that the need for such change is clear to bourgeois thinkers, does not mean that finance capital will simply voluntarily make a sacrifice of the hegemony it currently enjoys. Indeed the history of the 1930s itself bears witness to this fact. [...] Boosting aggregate demand for overcoming mass unemployment finally got accepted as government policy only after the war when the weight of the working class in the advanced countries became much greater than before (of which the victory of the Labour Party in the British post-war elections and the vastly increased strength of the Communists in France and Italy were obvious markers), and when the Red Army came right up to the very doorsteps of Western Europe creating fears of a “communist takeover”. This conjuncture finally forced concessions from finance capital that had been unobtainable till then. Finance capital, in other words, does not voluntarily make concessions even when such concessions are seen by major pro-capitalist thinkers as being essential for the preservation of the system itself.
  • 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
  • I have a message to the neo-Nazis, to the white nationalists, and to the neo-Confederates: Your heroes are losers. You are supporting a lost cause. And believe me, I knew the original Nazis, because you see, I was born in Austria in 1947, shortly after the Second World War. And growing up, I was surrounded by broken men, men who came home from a war filled with shrapnel and guilt, men who were misled into a losing ideology. And I can tell you: that these ghosts you idolize spent the rest of their lives living in shame and right now, they’re resting in hell.

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