Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Europe

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Europe

The American military played decisive roles in the allied victories in World War I and World War II. The second half of the twentieth century saw the deployment of American military and economic assistance to Europe on an unprecedented scale.

The Marshall Plan

Postwar Europe lay in ruins in 1945. Many major cities were little more than rubble heaps; strategic bombing and the ravages of war had devastated the continent's infrastructure. Although Germany was overrun by American, British, French, and Soviet troops, all of the European powers, victors included, were on the verge of economic collapse. Famine and disease were a constant menace.

The United States stood alone as the one power to emerge from the conflict stronger than before it entered. The American wartime economy, which had not only sustained the U.S. military effort but also substantially contributed to Allied economies, was quickly converting to a peacetime footing, ushering in a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity for the country.

This economic vitality would soon be used to assist Europe in its rebuilding process. Although initial plans for postwar Germany had revolved around completely dismantling that country's industrial economy, an American faction led by Secretary of State George Marshall began advocating for economic aid to all European countries in the interest of humanitarian relief and stability on the continent.

The Marshall Plan quickly gained traction in Western Europe; although the Soviets were invited to join in, there were several provisos to the plan that conflicted with their Communist doctrine or violated Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's isolationist policies. Worse, Stalin blocked Czechoslovakia and Poland, both within the postwar sphere of Soviet influence, from accepting benefits under the plan. The “Iron Curtain,” a phrase used by former British prime minister Winston Churchill in a 1946 speech to describe the divide between the democracies of Western Europe and the Soviet-dominated regimes of Eastern Europe, guaranteed that only the Western European countries would benefit from U.S. economic aid.

Over a period of four years, from 1947 to 1951, nearly $13 billion in aid was delivered to Europe in the form of money and material. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and West Germany all received aid, and all benefited tremendously. Although a general recovery was already underway, the Marshall Plan sped this process up considerably. By the time the plan ended, Western Europe was on the cusp of a two-decade period of rapid growth and prosperity.

The Cold War

The four years of the Marshall Plan also mark the emergence of the Cold War. When the plan was initiated, the Soviet Union was still seen by many as an ally of the West. However, as the Iron Curtain descended, the plan took on an unforeseen aspect as it benefited the countries outside the Soviet Bloc, creating a sharp divide between the two halves of Europe. Even as money poured into Western Europe, so too did American military personnel. By the close of the 1940s, Europeans worried that their continent would once again become a battleground, this time between America and the Soviet Union and their respective European allies.

There were many on both sides, Joseph Stalin included, who viewed war between the two power blocs as inevitable. American antipathy toward the Communist regime of the USSR stretched back to the Bolshevik revolution. In one of America's earliest and most remarkable European military interventions, U.S. troops were sent to aid the White (non-Communist) Russian faction during the Russian Civil War. Landing in the east at Vladivostok and in the north at Archangelsk and Murmansk, American troops, in concert with Japanese and Czech forces, advanced as far as the Volga, shooting it out with Red Russian troops over a two-year period from 1918–1920. This action did not go unforgotten in the Soviet Union—which until its collapse continued to claim damages from the United States—and Stalin later regarded it as a sign of things to come.

The “inevitable” war was very nearly sparked in 1948 with the isolation of West Berlin, which was occupied by the Western Allied powers but situated deep within the Soviet-held zone (soon to become East Germany). The Berlin Air Lift, organized by commanders of the American Air Force, managed to keep the city supplied for nearly a year before Stalin lifted the blockade, motivated in large part by the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which declared that an attack on a single member state would be considered a declaration of war on all member states.

With that crisis averted, both sides began preparing for war, leading to a semi-permanent American military presence in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and West Germany. The latter country became the front line in the ceaseless battle of espionage and brinkmanship that characterized the Cold War and America’s containment strategy.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American military bases in Germany and elsewhere were maintained, providing a staging area for intervention in the Middle East, an especially vital function in the wake of the events of terrorist attacks on American targets on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent War on Terrorism.

Peacekeeping Missions

The U.S. has intervened in Europe for reasons beside Cold War power politics. These interventions have taken the form of peacemaking missions, either diplomatic or military. For example, President Bill Clinton played a highly personal role in the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s, making several speeches calling for peace and even telephoning Irish and British leaders during the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement of 1998, encouraging them to keep talking and not to leave until an agreement had been reached.

The Clinton administration also intervened in the former Yugoslavia, which was wracked by a series of wars and factional conflicts starting in 1991 with the breakup of the country into its constituent states. A savage three-way war in the state of Bosnia, drawn along ethnic and religious lines, drew widespread international condemnation, but little action until the U.S.-led NATO attacks, codenamed Operation Deliberate Force, of August and September 1995.

The sustained bombing campaign, launched primarily from U.S. carriers in the Adriatic Sea, was instrumental in finally bringing the various factions together for peace talks in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accords marked an end to a war that was infamous for its episodes of “ethnic cleansing” and prison camps that many found uncomfortably reminiscent of the atrocities of World War II.

When conflict flared up once again in the region, this time in the Serbian state of Kosovo in 1999, U.S.-led NATO forces were quick to intervene with another bombing campaign. The Kosovo War visited widespread death, displacement, and destruction on the region, but also brought a relatively quick peace. Today Bill Clinton is still honored as a hero among the ethnic Albanians of the region.

American intervention in Europe has played a large role in that continent's movement toward an open economy and the formation of the European Union. Although the U.S. presence in Europe continues to cause diplomatic friction occasionally, on the whole U.S. intervention has proven a positive factor in Europe's postwar history.

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Europe

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