The horrors of World War II resulted in several political changes across the West, with the goal of preventing such a future conflict. Unfortunately, the resulting Cold War kept tensions high between the democratic, pro-capitalist North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the socialist Warsaw Pact, of which the Soviet Union was the dominant member. Both the NATO powers and the Soviet Union remained highly militarized, sought international agreements, and tried to influence emerging third-world countries to protect themselves and spread their beliefs. From 1946 to 1989, this period of diplomatic and militaristic tension, which involved occasional smaller proxy wars, was known as the Cold War and heavily affected domestic politics in each nation.
Before World War II: Appeasement & Failure of the League of Nations
During and after World War I, the United States president Woodrow Wilson sought to create an international body to prevent future armed conflicts. His famous “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress in 1918 called for an association of nations to use diplomacy, rather than force, to solve disagreements. After the war formally ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which treated Germany harshly as the aggressor, the League of Nations was formed. However, although President Wilson had championed the international body, the U.S. Senate refused to join.
After winning the 1920 presidential election, conservative Warren G. Harding steered the U.S. back toward a policy of non-intervention in affairs outside the Western Hemisphere (North and South America). Having seen the horrors of World War I, which included brutal trench warfare, the American public was opposed to future military engagements that did not involve directly defending U.S. territory. In fact, prior to America’s late entry into World War I, Woodrow Wilson had actually won re-election in 1916 by being praised for keeping America out of the war. With Germany soundly defeated, there was no public support for fighting new tyrants.
Unfortunately, America’s refusal to join the League of Nations, and its public desire to remain free from international entanglements in general, stymied the League’s efforts to stop aggressors. In the 1930s, weakened by the Great Depression, World War I victors like Britain and France could do little to stop emerging tyrants like Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and militaristic Japan. By the mid-1930s, these three future Axis Powers were engaging in conquest by invading or forcibly occupying neighboring nations.
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After annexing Austria, Germany set its sights on the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. German dictator Adolf Hitler declared that Germany should control the territory to protect its ethnic German minority. In September 1938, Britain and France controversially allowed Germany to occupy the Sudetenland in exchange for a promise that Germany would seek no more territorial gains in Europe. The Munich Agreement was promoted in Britain by then-prime minister Neville Chamberlain as a terrific peace deal but was broken by Hitler less than a year later when Germany invaded Poland. Critics called the attempt to deal with the Nazi dictator “appeasement” and insisted that it showed weakness in the face of aggression.
Politics of War: “Rally Around The Flag” Effect
World War II began in Europe in September 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland. The following spring, France was swiftly and unexpectedly defeated. That autumn, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in office after declaring that America would remain neutral in European wars, clearly referring to the oft-remembered horrors of World War I. On December 29, 1940, however, having won re-election the previous month, FDR broke sharply with his previous rhetoric in his Arsenal of Democracy speech. One year later, America formally joined the war as one of the Allied Powers following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
FDR’s popularity remained high as the nation fought on two fronts: against Germany in North Africa and Europe and against Japan in the Pacific. In 1944, he won a fourth term as president using the slogan “don’t change horses in mid-stream,” referring to the importance of maintaining steady leadership during the war. Although FDR’s victory in 1944 was by the smallest margin of his four, it reinforced the fact that wartime leaders enjoy strong popularity (at least while the war is ongoing and the country is perceived as winning). This “rally around the flag” effect has historically been used by leaders of all political persuasions.
After World War II, the “rally around the flag” effect was next experienced classically during the Gulf War of 1990-91. President George Bush Sr. enjoyed a whopping 89 percent approval rating in February 1991 upon the war’s relatively quick-and-painless conclusion. New “smart weapons” and air power from the U.S. and its western allies decimated Iraq’s obsolete, Soviet-supplied army. However, the popularity was short-lived, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union that December. A brief economic recession that year sapped Bush’s popularity, and Democratic rival Bill Clinton was younger and more likable. Despite having won the Gulf War in a heroic fashion, Bush lost his re-election bid some twenty months later.
No More Appeasement: Brinksmanship, MAD, and Cold War Red Lines
After World War II, the failure of appeasement at Munich in 1938 remained a permanent political scar. Eager to avoid any future accusations of weakness, post-war leaders began the Cold War era with shows of strength and resolve. This era of brinksmanship came to a peak in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After a communist revolution in Cuba brought Soviet advisors and weapons less than 100 miles from America’s shores, the U.S. and Soviet governments prodded each other with escalating gestures and rhetoric. Ultimately, the two superpowers came close to nuclear war after the U.S. Navy blockaded the island nation of Cuba and threatened to destroy Soviet ships that were approaching, allegedly with nuclear weapons that could be used against America. Fortunately, shots were not fired, and a diplomatic resolution was found.
Although brinksmanship cooled somewhat after the Cuban Missile Crisis, both U.S. and Soviet leaders felt pressured to remain aggressive toward the opposing side. The domino theory of geopolitics in the 1950s and 1960s asserted that nations would fall to communism one by one, similar to toppling dominoes, if communism were ever to take root.
Thus, the U.S. acted aggressively to prevent the rise of communism in Asia. While American intervention in Korea saved South Korea from a hostile communist takeover in the early 1950s, later U.S. involvement in Vietnam was far more controversial. The ruling regime in South Vietnam was unpopular and seen as corrupt, but American support remained strong to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident drastically increased U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, which would grow heavily over the next five years.
Having been caught relatively unprepared for World War II, especially against the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. vowed to maintain high military readiness against current and future foes. From 1945 onward, this meant the Soviet Union and, after the USSR’s dissolution, its successor state Russia. In the early 2000s, China became included, followed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and possibly Iran. To deter potential strikes by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons (weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs), both the U.S. and the Soviet Union made it clear that they could destroy any rival with their own WMDs, even if they were hit first. This second- and third-strike capability guaranteed mutually assured destruction (MAD), making it suicidal to launch an aggressive attack.
As with brinksmanship and the domino theory, MAD evolved from the post-1930s belief that appeasement at Munich and lack of international action against Japan had only emboldened Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo. To prevent aggression, one must project strength. However, critics contend that focusing on military might rather than diplomacy has led the world closer to destruction, with the rise of WMDs, especially nuclear warheads, threatening the extinction of humankind. Although the U.S. and Russia have been cutting their nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, several additional states (India, Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly Israel) have developed their own nuclear weapons.
While the threat of nuclear war, at least between world powers, has decreased since 1989, the rise of regional powers with their own WMDs has raised fears of war and genocide similar to those perpetrated by the Germans and Japanese during World War II. The nuclear arms programs of North Korea and Iran have alarmed the world, and the Syrian Civil War saw the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. U.S. President Barack Obama struggled with a suitable response to reports that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons against his own people, as Obama had previously stated that such a violation of the laws of war was a “red line” that would not be tolerated. Forced to respond with force, Obama chose to use limited air attacks on Syrian forces.
After the Holocaust: “Never Again” and Israel
Linked to the political disdain for appeasement is the public demand to never allow genocide to occur again. When the U.S., British, and Soviet troops discovered the horrors of the Holocaust, there was a vow that such barbarity was intolerable. Similarly, Japanese atrocities in China and Southeast Asia strengthened the Allies’ resolve to prevent future dictators and human rights abuses. The phrase “never again” was intended to show that such hatred and oppression could never again occur unchallenged.
Unfortunately, such resolve was short-lived and selectively applied: both the NATO powers and the Soviets did little to stop atrocities committed by their respective allies during the Cold War, especially the Khmer Rouge engaging in the Cambodian genocide. Nevertheless, there remains tremendous political pressure in foreign affairs to refer to the Holocaust and “never again” when arguing that one’s allies are under assault by a larger, more powerful group. Similarly, in both foreign and domestic affairs, there is also a tendency to declare any perceived increase in authoritarianism or oppression to be similar to Nazism.
Coming immediately on the heels of “never again” was support for creating a new nation-state for European Jews. Historically, Jews were oppressed because, in part, they were a minority group without a home territory. In 1947, the new United Nations organization declared that British Palestine would be partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states in May 1948, when Britain’s control over the territory would cease. This created the new nation of Israel but sparked intense conflict with the local Arab population. The U.S. and Britain became staunch allies of Israel, while the Soviets became supporters of the surrounding Arab nations.
Today, support for Israel remains a hot-button issue in American politics. It is widely considered the United States’ most loyal ally in the Middle East. However, there are many American critics of Israeli policies, especially toward Palestinians and other Muslims. This has created a recent political “litmus test” in the United States, with candidates for U.S. Senate and president/vice president being quizzed about their support for Israel. Perhaps controversially, many supporters of Israel often equate criticism of Israeli government policies to anti-Semitism or prejudice against Jews.
End of Isolationism
In the aftermath of World War II, American isolationism during the 1920s and early 1930s was criticized for allowing fascism and oppression to flourish in Europe and Asia. Because the U.S. did not join the League of Nations, that international body had considerably less power to dissuade aggressors. After the horrors of World War II, the United States – and other world powers – vowed not to return to isolationism and to distance oneself from foreign affairs.
For better or worse, the United States has been very active in international affairs, including military interventions, since World War II. Any attempts to withdraw from international actions and agreements are often criticized as isolationist, which hearkens back to shame about the rise of Nazism and imperialist Japan. Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. seek international engagement, with liberals preferring more engagement on trade and foreign aid and conservatives preferring more engagement on military actions and alliances.
World War II Political Impacts: Strong National Defense
Along with the “rally around the flag” effect in U.S. politics, the vow to never again appease foreign tyrants, and the end of isolationism is the post-World War II political demand for strong national defense. After the U.S. served as the “arsenal of democracy” through Lend-Lease and committed its huge military to defeat the Axis Powers, it retained its new military might into the 1950s as a new threat arose: the Soviet Union, our former ally, was refusing to allow eastern Europe to return to its pre-war status as independent states. In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously declared that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Europe, behind which people were ruled by grim communism.
World War II led directly to the Cold War by allowing the Soviet Union to dominate Eastern Europe, which the USSR rationalized by insinuating that it needed a buffer zone against potential future hostilities. By the end of the Cold War at the close of the 1980s, high defense spending was firmly entrenched in American politics. Liberals who advocate cutting this high military spending are typically criticized as “soft on defense” and emboldening tyrants. This has led to even progressive Democrats being very hesitant to suggest cutting defense spending. As a result, America’s elevated defense spending and its huge military-industrial complex are firmly rooted in our modern political traditions.