The devastation wrought by the war, including the war in the Pacific, greatly exceeded that in World War I: at least 50 million dead, more than half of them civilians, and more than $2,000 billion in damage.
Despite a sharply rising birth rate and vast programs of economic reconstruction, such losses could never be fully repaired. Moreover, new and terrifying problems faced the world. Atomic weapons, hydrogen bombs, and guided missiles made real the fear that a new general war might exterminate all life on this planet.
The United States and the Soviet Union were at first the only powers able to initiate or pursue nuclear warfare. The postwar history of international politics thus became largely a history of Soviet-American rivalry: a cold war between superpowers.
Enemy attack and occupation had caused incalculable devastation inside the Soviet Union and left millions of survivors destitute; but the nation’s capitalist ally, the United States, had remained unattacked in its heartland and had invented and used atomic weapons. It took Stalin four years (1945-1949) to catch up by making his own atomic bomb. Scientific information given the Soviets by agents and spies made some contribution to this achievement, but only the high level of Soviet science and technology and the Soviet capacity to concentrate government investments made it possible at all.
Though the Soviet Union and its former Western allies agreed on peace treaties with Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, no such treaty could be concluded with Germany or Japan. The Soviet Union also concluded a peace treaty with Finland in which it took a portion of Karelia. From Romania, the Soviet Union again took Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, and it annexed part of former East Prussia and the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia.
The chief surviving Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg in 1946, and twelve were sentenced to death for war crimes. Defeated Germany was divided into four occupied sections—American, British, French, and Soviet. The Soviet sector extended from eastern Germany to west of Berlin, which, as the former capital, was also divided into four occupation zones, one for each of the Allies. This arrangement was designed for temporary military occupation, but it continued because no treaty could be reached. The failure to reach any settlement over Germany left the most serious problem in Europe unresolved.
In 1949 the three Western powers promoted the union of their respective sectors as the Federal Republic of Germany—West Germany—with its capital at Bonn. The Soviets responded by creating the communist German Democratic Republic—East Germany—with its capital at Pankow outside Berlin. Many West Germans were eager for reunion with their fellow Germans in the Soviet zone. Yet a reunification of Germany under Western capitalist auspices was what the Soviets feared most, believing that it would mean a revival of aggression. An all-communist Germany was equally intolerable to the Western powers.
In Asia the most grievous problem remained that of China. The Chinese communists, who had challenged Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Kuomintang party for power, kept their forces active during the Japanese occupation. By 1949 the communists had defeated Chiang Kai-shek, who took refuge on the island of Formosa (Taiwan), where the communists could not follow because they had no fleet.
In the last years of the struggle, Chiang had lost his hold over the Chinese people; the morale of his own forces was low, and an ever-mounting inflation ravaged the economy. By 1950 mainland China had gone communist and formed part of the Soviet bloc, while Chiang’s government in Taiwan remained part of the American bloc. American foreign policy had suffered a major defeat.
Elsewhere, the Soviet Union pursued its goal of world communism through the agencies of individual Communist parties. Communist parties existed in virtually every country, often varying in the degree of subservience to the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Soviet government. The United States, by contrast, had no ideologically disciplined supporters in most of the world.
The two superpowers each became the leader of a great coalition whose members were attached by bonds of self-interest. The members of the loose American coalition in 1945 included the Western Hemisphere nations, Great Britain, the British Commonwealth, western Europe, Japan, and the Philippines. The Soviet coalition included the countries of eastern Europe and, by 1949, China.
The border between the two coalitions in Europe—named the Iron Curtain by Winston Churchill in 1946—ran along a north-south line across central Europe. Turkey belonged to the Western coalition, and portions of the Middle East and of southeast Asia were linked to it by a network of pacts. The dividing line between North and South Korea—with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States the south— represented a kind of Asian extension of the long frontier between the two coalitions. Over this long frontier came aggressive Soviet probing operations that led to crises and in several cases to wars.
Repeatedly, the West made gestures toward easing relations between the two coalitions. In 1946 Stalin refused to join in a United Nations atomic energy commission. In 1947 the United States proposed an international plan of massive American economic aid to accelerate European recovery from the ruin of the war—the Marshall Plan, named for General George C. Marshall, American secretary of state (1880-1959).
The Soviet Union refused to accept the aid for itself and would not let its satellites participate in the Marshall Plan. The former Western allies subsequently formed the nucleus of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. The Soviet coalition founded the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in 1947 as a successor to the former Comintern, and created the Warsaw Pact (1955), binding eastern Europe together, as a reply to NATO. The United States and Britain sought in the 1950s and 1960s to prevent the spread of atomic weapons. Their plan called for a joint multilateral (nuclear) force (MLF). Because the Germans would participate, the French rejected MLF and in 1966 withdrew their military forces from NATO and forced NATO headquarters to be moved out of France.
In the Middle East, the Baghdad Pact and its successor, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), proved to be no more than a series of unstable agreements among the United States, Britain, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. With the withdrawal of Iraq from the Baghdad Pact in 1959, no direct alliances linked the Arab world with the West. The neutral nations remained outside the coalitions. Some, like Switzerland or Sweden, were simply maintaining their traditional policies of not aligning themselves with any grouping of powers. But most were newly independent nations. Of these India was the most influential, taking much-needed economic assistance from both coalitions. As economic aid became an instrument in the cold war, neutral nations tried, often with success, to play one side off against the other.
Through the years of cold war, the United Nations— formed during World War II from among the opponents of the Axis and chartered in 1945 at San Francisco—served as an international organization where members of both coalitions and neutrals alike could confer. As the direct successor to the League of Nations, though with its headquarters in New York, it inherited the League’s duty of keeping the peace; but, like the League, it lacked independent sovereignty or authority over its members.
To deal with threats to the peace, its charter created a Security Council with eleven member states, five of which—the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China—held permanent memberships. The other six were elected to rotating two-year terms by the General Assembly, to which all member states belonged. The secretary general, elected by the Security Council, could exert great personal influence in international affairs.
Each of the five permanent members of the Security Council could veto any substantive question. Both the Soviet Union and the United States insisted that decisions had to be unanimous before action could go forward. As a result, the Security Council often found itself unable to act because of a veto. Of the eighty vetoes cast in the first decade, the Soviets exercised seventy-seven.
In the mid-1950s new nations joined the UN: some pro-Western, some pro-Soviet, and some neutral. Japan joined in 1956. As the former colonies obtained their independence during the late 1950s and early 1960s, each joined the United Nations, where the Afro-Asian bloc came to command a majority in the General Assembly. The United States for twenty years successfully opposed the seating of the Chinese communists, which until 1971 left the permanent Chinese seat on the Security Council in the possession of Chiang Kai-shek’s representative.
The League of Nations had never been able to put its own forces into the field, but the UN did so repeatedly: in Korea in 1950-1953; on the Arab-Israeli frontiers (1956-1967, and again in 1974 and 1982); in the former Belgian Congo; in Cyprus and elsewhere; and in 1991 in Iraq and Kuwait.
Through its functional councils and special agencies—the Economic and Social Council, the Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the World Bank—the UN advanced loans to governments to initiate new development plans, controlled epidemics, and provided experts on modern farming techniques. But the UN was frequently unable to forestall war, and while it remained a valuable instrument of diplomacy, the high hopes originally entertained for it were not realized.
As the major nation least injured by World War II because virtually no fighting took place on its home soil, the United States was in the best position to respond immediately to Soviet pressures. Under President Truman a new balance of power began to emerge. As part of that balance, the United States first turned to a policy of containment designed to prevent the Soviet Union from extending its control beyond the limits it had consolidated in 1947.
But by about 1952 the belief that inherent weaknesses in the Soviet system would cause it to disintegrate began to be seriously challenged. Containment was attacked by the left, which felt Truman was too hard on the Soviets; by the right, which wanted to roll the Soviets back to their original borders; and by the political middle, which argued that containment was only a defensive stance and that the United States must devise fresh initiatives to attract the newly independent nations of the so-called Third World.
For a brief time the United States supported the idea of liberation, or “rollback,” but was disillusioned after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in which Americans found they could do very little against Soviet domination. Since the first Soviet atom bomb test was detected in the West in September 1949, the United States had debated how best to deal with a growing tendency toward stalemate.
If the Soviet bloc could be made to loosen its control of its satellites, some liberalization might take place within the Soviet bloc itself without direct Western intervention. Thus attitudes toward the nations of eastern Europe remained in flux, with the great powers trying to manipulate the balance.