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10-08-2015, 23:31


From a historical perspective, World War II can be perceived as the culmination of the imperialist era. Competition among the European powers for markets and sources of raw materials began to accelerate during the early years of the nineteenth century and intensified as the effects of the Industrial Revolution made their way through western and central Europe. By 1900, virtually all of Asia and Africa had come under some degree of formal or informal colonial control. World War I weakened the European powers but did not bring the era of imperialism to an end, and the seeds of a second world confrontation were planted at the Versailles peace conference, which failed to resolve the problems that had led to the war in the first place. Those seeds began to sprout in the 1930s when Hitler’s Germany sought to recoup its losses and Japan became an active participant in the race for spoils in the Pacific region. As World War II came to a close, the leaders of the victorious Allied nations were presented with a second opportunity to fashion a lasting peace based on the principles of social justice and self-determination. There were several issues on their postwar agenda. Europe needed to be revived from the ashes of the war and restored to the level of political stability and economic achievement that it had seemingly attained at the beginning of the century. Beyond the continent of Europe, the colonial system had to be dismantled and the promise of self-determination enshrined in the Atlantic Charter applied on a global scale. The defeated nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan had to be reintegrated into the world community in order that the revanchist policies of the interwar era not be repeated. Finally, it was vital that the wartime alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union be maintained into the postwar era so that bitter national rivalries among the powers did not once again threaten world peace. In the decades following the war, the first three goals were essentially realized. During the 1950s and 1960s, the capitalist nations managed to recover from the extended economic depression that had contributed to the start ofWorldWar II and advanced to a level of economic prosperity never before seen. The bloody conflicts that had erupted among European nations during the first half of the twentieth century came to an end, and Germany and Japan were fully integrated into the world community. At the same time, theWestern colonial empires in Asia and Africa were gradually dismantled, and the peoples of both continents once again recovered their independence. But if the victorious nations of World War II had managed to resolve several of the key problems that had contributed to a half century of bloody conflict, the ultimate prerequisite for success— an end to the competitive balance-ofpower system that had been a contributing factor in both world wars—was hampered by the emergence of a grueling and sometimes tense ideological struggle between the socialist and capitalist blocs, a competition headed by the only two remaining great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. While the two superpowers managed to avoid an open confrontation, the postwar world was divided for fifty years into two heavily armed camps in a balance of terror that on one occasion—the Cuban Missile Crisis— brought the world briefly to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. In retrospect, the failure of the victorious world leaders to perpetuate the Grand Alliance seems virtually inevitable. Although the debate over who started the Cold War has been raging among historians for decades, it seems clear that the underlying causes of the ideological conflict lie not within the complex personalities of world leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman (although they may have contributed to the problem) but much deeper in the political, economic, and social conditions that existed in the world at midcentury. The rapid recovery of Western Europe had reduced the bitterness of class conflict and helped build strong foundations for the cooperative system of capitalist welfare states that emerged in the postwar era throughout the region, but much of the remainder of the world was just entering the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and was thus vulnerable to the bitter political, economic, and social turmoil that had marked the European experience in the twentieth century. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the capitalist and the Communist nations would become entangled in a bitter competition over influence in the Third World. Representing dynamic and mutually contradictory ideologies, both the United States and the Soviet Union were convinced that they represented the wave of the future and were determined to shape postwar reality to reflect their own worldview. The particular form that the Cold War eventually took—with two heavily armed power blocs facing each other across a deep cultural and ideological divide—was not necessarily preordained, but given the volatility of postwar conditions and the vast gap in mutual understanding and cultural experience, it is difficult to see how the intense rivalry that characterized the East-West relationship could have been avoided.