The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe is upon us. This war was a shock to several nations. It signaled the end of world domination of one group of nations as major world powers – Germany, France and the United Kingdom – and saw the rise of two nations that would spend the next 45 years competing for domination during the Cold War.
The two victorious nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, would draw different conclusions from this war and what preceded it that affects their nations’ thinking to this day, according to Stratfor’s George Friedman’s May 12 article called, “World War II and the Origins of American Unease.”
Both nations experienced shocks that drew them into war. For the Soviet Union it was the fall of France in just a few weeks in 1940. The Soviets had wanted to form a set of alliances with Britain and France against Germany as the Russian czar had done before World War I, but neither France nor Britain was interested in an alliance.
This forced Stalin, the Soviet leader, to make a pact with Hitler, which helped to expand the Soviet Union’s western border without much effort. Poland was divided in half by the Germans and Russians. This non-aggression pact provided an even deeper buffer for the Soviets against an attack from the West.
Stalin’s thinking was that Germany would repeat its World War I plan by attacking France and Britain, wasting its soldiers and resources, thus giving the Russians time to prepare to attack Germany at a time of their choosing. It didn’t turn out that way.
The collapse of the French army, which, according to Friedman, was superior to the Germans in many ways, came as a shock to Stalin. He never conceived that an army, which fought the Germans to a standstill from 1914 to 1918, would fall so quickly.
Instead of the Soviet Union attacking Germany, it was Germany choosing the time and place to attack them. The Soviet Union, still recovering from one of Stalin’s purges, was unprepared for the German onslaught. They were pushed back along a thousand mile front by the German invasion in 1941.
The lesson the Soviet Union came away with from the war, according to Friedman, was that military might, not coalition building, must be the chief strategy. After World War II, Eastern Europe was occupied and its nations were treated as satellites rather than allies. The countries that joined the Warsaw Pact, while undependable, provided strategic depth from another western invasion. The rapid fall of France had deeply shaken the Soviets.
The United States had suffered two shocks, the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. America as a nation has always been optimistic, but these two events rattled us and changed our strategic equation. Not only had we miscalculated the coming of the Great Depression, but we also had greatly underestimated the competence of the Japanese military, and thus paid anenormous price at Pearl Harbor.
According to Friedman:
“The Great Depression and Pearl Harbor created a different sensibility that
suspected that prosperity and security were an illusion, with disaster lurking behind them. There was a fear that everything could suddenly go wrong,
horribly so, and that people who simply accepted peace and prosperity at face value were naïve. The two shocks created a dark sense of foreboding that undergirds American society to this day.”
The British and French Munich doctrine of appeasement in response to German aggression was the cause of the war. From this the United States concluded that we must respond more quickly in the future to aggression. Non-involvement meant a slip into a third world war. That’s why the U.S. intervened over and over again in places like Berlin, Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. No president, either Republican or Democrat, could bear to be labeled an “appeaser”. Eternal vigilance became the new American watchword.
That’s also why our response after 9/11 was so swift and aggressive. The United States has been in a state of permanent mobilization, according to Friedman, since Pearl Harbor. But even that preparedness did not save us from Al-Qaeda. As a result, the government has spent billions of dollars on intelligence gathering.
This hypervigilance only increases with each terrorist attack both inside and outside our country. This fear that disaster is lurking just around the corner has divided this nation and made us edgy. Russia, too, is influenced by the lessons it has drawn from World War II, and is acting accordingly in Ukraine. Both nations are living with this legacy of uncertainty brought about by events that occurred over 70 years ago this year.