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10-08-2015, 17:09


World War II was the most devastating total war in human history. Germany, Italy, and Japan had been utterly defeated. Perhaps as many as forty million people—soldiers and civilians—had been killed in only six years. In Asia and Europe, cities had been reduced to rubble, and millions of people faced starvation as once fertile lands stood neglected or wasted. Untold millions of people had become refugees. What were the underlying causes of the war? One direct cause was the effort by two rising capitalist powers, Germany and Japan, to make up for their relatively late arrival on the scene to carve out their own global empires. Key elements in both countries had resented the agreements reached after the end of World War I that divided the world in a manner favorable to their rivals and hoped to overturn them at the earliest opportunity. Neither Germany nor Japan possessed a strong tradition of political pluralism; to the contrary, in both countries, the legacy of a feudal past marked by a strong military tradition still wielded strong influence over the political system and the mind-set of the entire population. It is no surprise that under the impact of the Great Depression, the effects of which were severe in both countries, fragile democratic institutions were soon overwhelmed by militant forces determined to enhance national wealth and power. Unlike World War I, which has often been blamed on the entire system of balance of power politics, the consensus is that responsibility for World War II falls squarely on the shoulders of leaders in Berlin and Tokyo who were willfully determined to reverse the verdict of Versailles and divide the world between them. The bitterest controversy to come out of World War II was thus less how it began than how it ended. Truman’s decision to approve the use of nuclear weapons to compel Japan to surrender has often been criticized, not only for causing thousands of civilian casualties but also for introducing a frightening new weapon that could threaten the future survival of the human race. Some analysts have even charged that Truman’s real purpose in ordering the nuclear strikes was to intimidate the Soviet Union. Defenders of his decision argue that the human costs of invading the Japanese home islands would have been infinitely higher had the bombs not been dropped, and the Soviet Union would have had ample time to consolidate its control over Manchuria. More than half a century later, that debate has not yet come to an end. Whatever the causes of World War II and its controversial conclusion, the consequences were soon to be evident. European hegemony over the world was at an end, and two new superpowers on the fringes of Western civilization had emerged to take its place. Even before the last battles had been fought, the United States and the Soviet Union had arrived at different visions of the postwar world. No sooner had the war ended than their differences gave rise to a new and potentially even more devastating conflict: the Cold War. Though Europeans seemed merely pawns in the struggle between the two superpowers, they managed to stage a remarkable recovery of their own civilization. In Asia, defeated Japan made a miraculous economic recovery, and the era of European domination finally came to an end.