Years of War End, Decades of War Begin
Today the Monitor concludes a year-long series of articles that examine World War II and its aftermath. America is thrust into a leadership role as confrontations with communism commence
AS 1945 began, the United States was phasing out of war and into peace, a peace earned by defeating fascist aggression in Europe and the Far East.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As 1945 ended, the United States was phasing out of peace and into war, a war of nerves against a former ally that had aggressive designs of its own.
Nineteen forty-five was a watershed year globally because it marked the end of World War II and the start of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union. Events beginning in 1945 also marked a turning point for Americans: Their historic yearning to be free from foreign entanglements could no longer be indulged.
It ''was the first year in their history that Americans had a vision of world leadership and the power to act on that vision - when the US moved from being a regional power in the Western Hemisphere to being a global power,'' says Thomas Paterson, a University of Connecticut diplomatic historian.
As the end of World War II neared, President Franklin Roosevelt was so sure that a return to prewar normalcy was imminent that he predicted all US troops would be out of Europe within two years.
Instead, the six-year conflict that cost $4 trillion and 40 million lives created circumstances that forced the US to remain indefinitely at the center of world politics.
One such circumstance was the demand to construct a strong United Nations, which US policymakers saw as the antidote to the alliance systems, arms races, and power balances that had led to two world wars in the 20th century alone. Paradoxically, the cold war produced its own, far more lethal arms race that kept new alliances on a hair trigger for four decades.
The US was also compelled to remain active in the international arena by the need to design and implement a new trading system that would open the world to US products and investment.
As the world's richest nation, America was also forced to respond to the huge demand to provide aid to nations savaged by the war, and to the millions of people displaced by it. Reconstruction aid began flowing in late 1945 and culminated in the Marshall Plan in 1948, which helped underwrite the economic renaissance of Europe.
The main force pushing the US onto the world stage was the emerging threat of Soviet expansionism, which as early as the last months of 1945 was confronting the Truman administration and Congress with a difficult choice. As the Monitor's Richard Strout explained at the time: ''There is the question of whether America is going to shake a fist at Russia while demilitarizing herself.''
By the end of 1945, strains with Russia on two fronts were providing unmistakable hints that cherished dreams of disarming and returning to the isolationism of the prewar years were about to be overtaken by events.
On the Eastern front, China was the focal point of US-Soviet rivalry.
At war's end, both Washington and Moscow were nominally committed to help the Chinese nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek regain control of territory liberated from Japanese control.
The US provided military, logistical, and financial support to the corruption-riddled Chiang government. But the Soviet Union provided clandestine aid to Chiang's rival, communist leader Mao Tse-tung, secretly turning over to Mao ''abandoned'' Japanese arms from areas occupied by Soviet troops under the terms of the February 1945 Yalta agreement.