Chapter 1

World War II and the
destruction of the old order

Explanations for the onset of the Cold War must begin with
World War II. A conflict that ranks, by any conceivable measure, as the most
destructive in human history, World War II brought unparalleled levels of
death, devastation, privation and disorder.

‘The conflagration of 1939-1945 was so wrenching, so total,
so profound, that a world was overturned’ notes historian Thomas G. Paterson.

A World Overturned

Approximately 60 million people lost their lives as a direct
result of the war, fully two-thirds of them non-combatants. The war’s losers,
the Axis states of Germany, Japan, and Italy, suffered more than 3 million
civilian deaths; their conquerors, the Allies, suffered far more: at least 35
million civilian deaths. Soviet losses were the most severe of all: at least 25
million dead, another 25 million rendered homeless, 6 million buildings
destroyed, and much of the country’s industrial plant and productive farmland
laid to waste. Across Europe, an estimated 50 million of the war’s survivors had
been uprooted by the war, some 16 million of them euphemistically termed
‘displaced persons’ by the victorious Allies. Hiroshima and Nagasaki met a dire
fate as the twin atomic blasts that brought the Pacific War to a close left
them obliterated.

A New World

The vast swath of death and destruction precipitated by the
war not only left much of Europe and Asia in ruins but the old international
order as well. ‘The whole world structure and order that we had inherited from
the nineteenth century was gone’, marvelled US Assistant Secretary of State
Dean Acheson. Indeed, the Eurocentric international system that had dominated
world affairs for the past 500 years had, virtually overnight, vanished. Two
continent-sized military behemoths- already being dubbed superpowers – had
risen in its stead, each intent upon forging a new order consonant with its
particular needs and values. As the war moved into its final phase, even the
most casual observer of world politics could see that the United States and the
Soviet Union held most of the military, economic, and diplomatic cards. 

The United States emerged from the wreckage of World War II
with relatively moderate losses. The United States learned essential lessons
from the war. One of which was that that the Eurasian heartland, as
geopoliticians were fond of labelling it, ranked as the world’s greatest
strategic-economic prize; its combination of rich natural resources, advanced
industrial infrastructure, skilled labour, and sophisticated military
facilities made it the fulcrum of world power.

The overwhelming need to defend the Soviet homeland lay at
heart of all Kremlin designs for the postwar world. Blocking the Polish
invasion route, or ‘gateway’, ranked foremost in that regard. Poland, stressed
Stalin, was ‘a matter of life and death’ to his country. Finally, the Soviets
were looking to be treated as a respected, responsible great power after being
shunned as a pariah state for so long. They craved respect, somewhat
paradoxically, from the same capitalist states their ideological convictions
taught them to loathe.

Married to the overwhelming power each nation possessed at a
time when much of the world lay prostrate, those mirror opposite ideological
values provided a sure-fire recipe for conflict.

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