Introduction to The Postwar Era (1945–1960)

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Introduction to The Postwar Era (1945–1960)

World War II (1939–1945) set the stage for deep transformations in the world order. The war devastated European society, bringing the era of European global dominance to a close as the United States emerged as the preeminent global power. The United States had suffered far fewer losses than the other combatants, and wartime production had lifted its economy out of the Depression.

The United States and the Soviet Union had been allies against Nazi Germany, but an extended period of hostilities between the two nations—referred to as the Cold War—dominated the politics of the postwar years. Between 1945 and 1948, Communist governments subservient to the Soviet Union were installed throughout Eastern Europe. Germany was divided into four occupation zones by the victorious Allies; the northeast quadrant became a Soviet satellite state called the German Democratic Republic. The Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949, and the ensuing nuclear arms race heightened the Cold War standoff.

When the full extent of the Nazi Holocaust against European Jews became clear after the war’s end, the revelations generated worldwide sympathy for the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. The United Nations approved a plan for creating a Jewish nation alongside an Arab one in Palestine, and although the population of that country opposed partition, the state of Israel was established in 1948. An Arab coalition immediately declared war on the Jewish state, but was unable to defeat Israel. Nearly one million Palestinians became refugees, setting in motion the central dispute of the Middle East into the twenty-first century.

India’s long struggle for independence, led by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), finally succeeded in 1947 as Great Britain handed over sovereignty. However, Gandhi’s dream of a united India did not come true, due to persistent conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The British departure split the subcontinent into two nations—India, with a majority Hindu population, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. The two South Asian powers went to war several times over the contested province of Kashmir.

In China, the nationalist Kuomintang government and their Communist rivals had suspended their civil war to join forces against Japanese occupation, but their struggle resumed in 1945. The Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976), triumphed in 1949 and founded the People’s Republic of China. The nationalists took over the island of Taiwan, insisting that they remained China’s sovereign rulers.

The army of the Soviet Union had entered the Pacific theater of World War II in August 1945, mere days before Japan’s surrender. Soviet troops rapidly crossed into the Korean peninsula from the north. The victorious Allies temporarily split the peninsula in two, with the northern zone administered by the Soviets and the southern zone controlled by the United States. However, reunification efforts collapsed in the face of the animosity between the superpowers, and two separate Korean states arose. The Korean War of 1950–1953, the first major military engagement of the Cold War, killed roughly three million people and completely failed to resolve the political conflict. The border between North and South Korea remains among the world’s most heavily militarized sites.

Cuba’s revolution of 1959, and the Communist state constructed by Fidel Castro (1927–) on an island ninety miles off Florida’s coast, enraged American leaders and magnified Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union brought on a crisis by surreptitiously shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba. For several days in October 1962, the world dangled on the brink of nuclear war. The crisis was resolved peacefully, but it revealed the precarious nature of global security in the nuclear age.

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