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This essay will firstly consider the major events of the inter-World War period: the creation of the League of Nations, the role of American isolationism, and the Great Depression and its consequences for Europe. Secondly, it will consider how these events influenced American foreign policy and shaped the American response to the perceived threat of Soviet expansion in Europe in the early post-World War Two period.
In the aftermath of World War One, Woodrow Wilson asserted that the best way to ensure world peace was the creation of the League of Nations, a forum where grievances could be heard and debated so that war could be avoided. The main reason for its failure was the subsequent American return to its tradition of isolationism, which was caused by the shock of the war’s brutality as well as indifference to the plight of Europeans. The Great Depression began in 1929 and its effects were felt worldwide. It encouraged extremist and nationalist views among many populations and gave Hitler his opportunity to take power in Germany and reduced the ability of Great Britain and France to maintain security in Europe.
Orthodox historians hold that after World War Two the desire of the United States for a new world order based on the rules of the United Nations Charter and Soviet attempts to take control in Europe caused the onset of the Cold War. However, revisionist historians argue that United States policy makers caused the Cold War by failing to differentiate between peripheral and vital interests and unreasonably not allowing a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. As the Soviets had destroyed two thirds of the German army to bring this area under their control the US position can easily be seen as unfair.
After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, US troops were sent to Russian cities and despite being ordered not to interfere in the ensuing civil war, they did help anti-Communist forces indirectly. This shows that America was apprehensive at best about the Communist takeover in Russia and this combined with the Soviet policy of encouraging the spread of Communism worldwide ensured that Washington refused to establish diplomatic relations with Moscow. This could be seen as the start of the Cold War.
In the aftermath of the Second World War it was left to the Soviet Union and the United States to decide how the new world order would be shaped. Americans recalled that they had not taken seriously the threat posed by Hitler during the 1930s and were encouraged to see Stalin as a new Hitler and as a man that must be stopped. American leaders may have been less willing to reason with Soviet demands because they feared that this would be seen as appeasement in America and in Moscow and would only embolden the Soviets. Therefore rather than a return to isolationism and the policy of appeasement that had devastating consequences in relation to Hitler’s Germany the United States resolved to tackling the Soviets in a confrontational manner.
George F. Kennan said that for totalitarianism “there are at least no better examples that Germany and Russia.” The view that the Soviets presented a threat to America was enhanced by the widespread view in America that Soviet military victories in Eastern Europe were acts of aggression rather than a mission of liberation. Soviet security concerns caused by a history of constant invasion from the West were not recognised and the prevailing view was that after conquering the whole of Europe the Soviet Union would challenge the rest of the world.
The failure of the League of Nations was attributed mainly to the lack of American commitment to playing a major role in world affairs. Therefore when the United Nations was set-up the United States committed to playing a major role in world affairs. This meant confronting any perceived threat of aggression directly with the hope of stamping out any threat to world peace quickly and put the US on course for a collision with the Soviet Union. This led to the Soviet defensive policy of creating buffer zones defend against possible invasion being misinterpreted in Washington as aggressive behaviour that posed a threat to world peace.
The problem with the United Nations was that whilst it was endorsed by all sides, key differences between each side’s respective positions were concealed. Thus many in America believed that the United Nations would be able to ensure world peace but controversial issues such as Eastern Europe were not resolved. This caused a tide of disillusionment with the UN to follow as it failed to live up to its expectations when these controversial issues became crises between the wartime allies.
American refusal to grant the Soviet Union a meaningful loan after World War Two, like that given to Great Britain, rejuvenated old Soviet fears and contributed to its uncooperativeness. To grant a loan would have helped heal Soviet economic wounds and dispel fears of another Great Depression therefore reducing the insecurities that lead to aggression. It also would have given a strong base for continued cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union after the wars end.
In 1944 United States Secretary of State Hull announced “A world in economic chaos would be forever a breading ground for trouble and war.” Hull believed that lower barriers to world trade would help sow the seeds of world peace because as classical liberals had long argued commerce is the ‘main bond between nations.’ Americans saw the key to avoiding another depression as guaranteeing markets abroad for their goods and the improvement in the standard of living worldwide that would follow as a way to reduce the likelihood of future war. Soviet refusal to play a role in the Bretton Woods monetary system should have been anticipated and posed a threat to the American belief that war could be prevented through economics.
The Cold War was partly caused by the lack of a common enemy that posed a greater threat to the Soviet Union and the United States than they posed to each other. This is because World War Two bankrupted Britain and left Germany and Japan in ruins. This can be seen throughout history that fragile alliances breakdown almost as soon as the common enemy is defeated. In this case the cracks began to appear long before Germany was fully defeated.
It could be argued that because of the inherent differences in Soviet and American ideology, the Cold War was inevitable regardless of the actions of statesmen on both sides. This is because the US was determined to see the spread of capitalist democracy as it saw this as the best way to prevent war and the Soviet Union believed that worldwide adoption of Communism was inevitable and that inter state war would be replaced by class war.
World War Two caused a shift in United States foreign policy. Previously, most Americans believed that a minimal amount of overseas commitments and alliances as the key to security. However, after World War Two involvement in world affairs rather than isolationism was seen as the key to preventing new wars. The Soviets, however, saw the key to world peace as staying strong themselves and keeping Germany weak rather than Washington’s collective security and increased world trade.
The American vision for the post war world was strongly influenced by a preoccupation with the past. Roosevelt was determined to avoid repeating the mistakes that had led to World War Two and so pursued the policies of self-determination, increased world trade, creation of international institutions and unconditional surrender of belligerents. However, he failed to realise the effect that these policies would have on his other main aim of ensuring continued cooperation with the Soviet Union after the end of the war.
Bagby, W. America’s International Relations Since World War I. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Barston, R, ed. International Politics since 1945. Hampshire: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 1991.
Cole, W. An Interpretive History of American Foreign Relations, Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press, 1968.
Gaddis, J. The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1941-1947. London and New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Paterson, T. Meeting the Communist Threat : Truman to Reagan. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
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