The End of World War II
World War II ended with a bang, literally. Afterwards, the global world system changed dramatically. Areas that had been subject to some colonial ruler would now find themselves freed. Along with that freedom came the task of creating new governments and new economic systems. Before the war ended FDR had signed the Atlantic Charter. This agreement between major allied powers set the stage for the emergence of new colonies as they listed self-determination as a right of all people. This would change the lives of millions. However, at the same time, the expansion of the Soviet Union threatened to bring communism in those newly freed areas. The US at this point took the leading role in fighting back against that. While the US and USSR would never go to war directly with each other, they would fight in other ways and the animosity had the world on edge with a possible nuclear war between the two superpowers that would shake their countries as well.
Also see: World War II: Germany and Japan
Given the massive devastation most European countries faced at the end of World War II, no one was really in a position to help anyone else out. The US on the other hand, experienced amazing economic prosperity as a result of the war. Only Pearl Harbor sustained any losses, the rest of the country flourished. The government created so many jobs that gave people money to spend in the economy that the economy roared back to life after the Great Depression. Additionally, having survived the Great Depression, Americans now used their money wisely, creating a stable economy. Of all the Allied Powers at the end of the war, only the US was able to take that leading role to fight back against communism. Fighting communism became that one job, that dreaded job, that no one wants to do, but that still must be done. The US began shouldering the burdens of Europe in a way they had never before. This was truly another turning point for the US in foreign policy. Now the US would become involved anywhere on the globe.
The Spread of Communism and Containment
Communism was described in the US as evil. Many Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, and many still today, probably could not have explained to you the economic theory of communism. The general idea that the working class would become so fed up with capitalism that they would overthrow the government and issue in an age of communal ownership of property and wealth to provide for everyone was not what most people learned. Most Americans learned that communism was “bad” or “evil”. While communism does in its nature take away the freedom of people to determine their job, lifestyle, and does take away their rights, most Americans simply came to associate communism with the USSR, and the USSR became our enemy.
Communist groups began to spring up in Europe. In Turkey and Greece just after World War II, communist groups threatened to take control. The country of Greece is historically significant for the US because it was in reference to the turmoil in Greece that President Truman went to Congress in 1947 and asked for money to send to those fighting the communist in Greece. It said it was our duty to help those fighting communism. The policy of “Containment” or the Truman Doctrine, came out of this request to Congress. It became the job of the US to fight communism wherever it intended to spread. At the same time, the USSR was actively sending advisors into newly freed countries to help them establish communist regimes.
In Berlin, a focal point of the war, another crisis mounted. Since Germany was now seen as the instigator of two major conflicts, western powers no long trusted Germany to govern itself. Germany was divided into four areas to be controlled by the US, France, England, and the USSR. These four countries were the ones to end the war and therefore they were put in control. Berlin was also divided amongst the four. However, in 1948, the USSR withdrew from their part of the city and began governing their entire sector independently. Then they initiated a blockade of the other parts of the city. The blockade was only on land transportation but the people of Berlin would soon run out of food and supplies if not challenged or overcome in some way. The US, France, and England began an airlift. They flew supplies in, in a steady stream for almost two years. The USSR never challenged the airlift and never shot at any of the planes. However, the Berlin Blockade signaled a new rift with the USSR. They were attempting to starve out the western powers in Germany and force them to leave. They ended the blockade in 1949, at about the time the western powers formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to organize their countries to face this new rift and challenge.
In that year, 1949, the Nationalist government in China fell to the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under Mao Zedong, the communist had gained millions of supporters in the countryside and the north and began the process of consolidating their control of this massive country. Mao had married the ideas of communism to Chinese cultural traditions in a rather brilliant way. In Chinese history, the agricultural peasant was seen as one of the most noble of all people in society. They held a high social position, they were honorable. They provided for the people. China had not industrialized really at this point and so Mao had no working class to rise against the government, however they did have millions of those in agriculture. He tied the two together and argued that it was the agricultural worker who would rise in revolt. They successfully pushed the Nationalist Party, supported by most western powers, to the island of Taiwan where they remain today The Republic of China. The CCP holds mainland China as the People’s Republic of China. About five years later in Bandung, Indonesia, Zhou Enlai from China would proclaim a third world, one outside of the global Cold War, in which none of the nations gathered at the meeting would ally with either the US or the USSR. These nations included, China, India, nations in Southeast Asia, and Africa. However, for the US, this was a harsh blow as a huge nation “fell” to communism.
More to read: The Great Depression and New Deal
That next year, the US became more directly involved in Korea. Korea had been a colony of Japan. Now they faced the task of creating a new government and economy. When the war initially ended, the victors needed to get Japanese soldiers back to Japan. The US had the task of collecting prisoners on one side of the 38th parallel and the USSR was collecting them on the other side of that line. The line was meant to be temporary. However, in the process of collecting these soldiers, US officials influenced those on the southern side regarding democracy and capitalism while the USSR did the same on their side of the line. In 1950, those on the northern side attacked the southern side to reunify the country under communism. The recently formed United Nations acted to stop the aggression and put the US more or less in charge. Mao Zedong in China warned the US to not go beyond the 38th parallel. General MacArthur decided to anyway, even after being given orders by Truman not to. This initiated the Chinese in the conflict. MacArthur was “invited to retire” by Truman and a stalemate ensued in Korea. The Korean War only ended in a cease fire. It technically never ended.
The next major conflict came under President John F Kennedy. The US continued its fight against communism in Europe and spent more and more money each year. They were helping the French in Vietnam hang on to it as a colony, even as that very notion violated every principle we had. The leader of an independent Vietnam was communist. Kennedy faced issues in Berlin and Cuba. Cuba falling to Castro in 1960 meant that communism had now spread into our own backyard. Just before JFK came into office, the US military had planned an “invasion” by those who had resisted Castro. We planned to merely help them take their country back. In 1961, JFK agreed to the Bay of Pigs invasion. We were to engage in air strikes 24 hours before the invasion to help. However, when the US began the airstrikes, all of the targets had been moved. This meant Castro knew of the plans. So the US called off the remaining airstrikes. They failed to tell the Cuban resistance who landed in the Bay of Pigs only to be slaughtered. This incident was humiliating for JFK and made the US look like an aggressor. In response, the leader of the USSR began the construction of a wall in Berlin to protect their interests in Germany against an invasion. While the US backed down, they continued to build nuclear weapons and began placing some of those in Izmir, Turkey.
The missiles placed in Turkey did not go unnoticed by the USSR. These could hit key Soviet cities. Therefore, they began placing missiles in Cuba. The US discovered this in 1962 and in October of that year had photographic evidence that missiles were there and could hit key US cities. Kennedy decided to blockade Cuba. The standoff lasted 13 days and was the closest we ever came to a nuclear world war III. People all over the world held their breath. People began stockpiling water and building bomb shelters. Tests conducted in the 1950s revealed that the shelters will not save you, but it did give people some peace of mind that they might survive. At one point JFK took a vote on a used napkin whether or not to strike first and just use one of the weapons in Turkey. They narrowly voted against. The napkin was released a few years ago and is in the National Archives today.
Détente and the End of the Cold War
Krushchev, the leader of the USSR, accepted JFK’s offer to remove the missiles if the US promised not to invade or support another invasion of Cuba and agreed to remove the missiles in Turkey. Given how close the world came to a disaster of epic portions, the next leaders worked hard to bring about some kind of stability. In an era we now call Détente, both powers backed off. The Cold War would not get tense again until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The US then supported the rival group, the Taliban, putting them in power. The Cold War then became a war of arms building and arms limitation talks. It became the space race as we raced to outer space. It was fought in our culture, on tv and in movies. Much of the literature of the time held themes of good guys versus bad guys. Many of the bad guys had Eastern European accents, etc. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, did things begin to change.
Cold War Foreign Policy: Discussion Question
After World War II ended, the Allies needed the US to fight back against the spread of communism. At that point, the US took on a new role and was clearly a true global superpower. Over the years, the US kept involving itself in more and more countries and more and more conflicts. At times the US sent money and at other times, they sent men. Today the US still holds that position, although we do see England and France, for example, becoming more involved than before. Do you think the US still needs to take that role globally? Are there ways in which we could convince other countries to help out to a greater extent than they have? Do you think it is important for Americans to know our foreign policy history to understand the world we live in today? What lessons do think are most important and what do you see as the most relevant issue or area we were involved in then that we should take note of today?
Also read: Containment and Cold War, 1945-1961
Last Updated on December 27, 2020 by Essay Pro