Civilization: A New History of the Western World Part 5




PIMLICO      2007


Chapter 18: The Post-War World: From Social Cohesion to Global Marketplace

The mere six decades since the end of the Second World War have barely given people who have lived through them time to acquire a historical perspective. Personal memories, day-to-day routine, the small triumphs and disasters of normal existence, interrupted by family tragedies and celebrations, quarrels and reconciliations, all interfere with a dispassionate view of the overarching themes of post-war history. But this of course is how it has always been. The grand strategies of geopolitics, the floods and ebbs of cultural and political change, the renaissances and reformations have always been played out in the messy, emotional journeys of millions of human lives. Written history has enabled us to give structure to the past, but the times in which we have lived should make us aware how life goes on beneath the horizon of history.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of a little hindsight, we can see certain patterns in the story of the western world since 1945. Most obviously this history comprises two settled phases, with a long period of transition in between. In the first phase, lasting roughly from 1945 to 1965 the countries of the west settled into a consensus built around a strong state directing the economic and social needs of its citizens, a network of national economies tied together through fixed exchange rates and controls on movement of capital and goods, and a military alliance dedicated to the restraint of communism. Western European countries, with their state ownership of public utilities and strategic industries, and their occasional socialist sympathies, seemed radically different from their American partners, but in reality the United States federal government put a massive indirect support into its key industries, while Europe was happy to lock itself into an American-led economic system and military alliance. The institutional politics of this first phase were largely consensual (this was the celebrated, or notorious, ‘post-war consensus’) while the informal opposition was largely limited to radical socialist, Marxist or communist groups.

The second phase began in roughly 1980 (though the key to its beginning happened in 1973, and its shoots began to show as early as the mid-1950s) and has continued to the present. In this phase the inherent value of opening up all aspects of society, and all parts of the world to private enterprise and to open competition and free markets has been taken for granted. The free flow of capital is intended to encourage efficiency by allowing money to go to wherever in the world it will be most effectively used. The western military alliance against communism has been replaced by the concept of ‘coalitions of the willing’, formed for specific purposes, while the size and capability of the United States’ armed services dwarfs all others. Institutional politic revolves around the different ways in which free trade and open markets can be brought into being and managed, while informal opposition, or compensation, tends towards promoting the value of non-tangible assets, such as quality of life, community, environment and religion. The case for open markets is led by the Anglo-Saxon world, in which the ‘Washington model’ has the full backing of the world’s most powerful economy and its military. Other western countries have found it more and more difficult to resist, with those that flourished under the first phase (notably Japan and Germany) suffering from their reluctance to adapt.

The transition period between these two phases was chaotic and bitter and yet was the most politically intoxicating and culturally creative period of the recent past. This might surprise us if we had not already seen how cultural life is galvanized by, and often in opposition to, social change. The western world became clearly defined in the first post-war phase, and in the second it set out to take over the world. But in the process, the meaning of western civilization was thrown into doubt. This is the process I will explore in this chapter.

In 1945 the continent of Europe lay in ruins. Its cities were devastated, its industries destroyed, millions of its people homeless and displaced. The relief that the war was over was tempered by physical and moral devastation. As the full horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe came to light, the victors and vanquished surveyed a scene of unparalleled degradation – here in the heart of Europe, apparently the most civilized place on earth, humanity had reached its lowest point. Nevertheless, the urgent need for action overcame the sense of shock at what had gone before. Starvation, disease, homelessness, and the need for the western allies to plan physical, political and social reconstruction were compounded by the resurgence of communism. Soviet armies had driven the Nazis from their own country, and liberated Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the eastern part of Germany. There were signs that some countries in the west, particularly Italy, France and Greece, might voluntarily become communist as an alternative to the nationalism, depression and war that capitalism had bequeathed.

The key to the recovery of western Europe lay with the United Sates. After the 1914-18 war American armies had been disbanded, and the country had maintained trade barriers against its European allies throughout the 1930s; in 1945 it was possible that America would go back into its shell. But while its relative isolation had, in earlier times, benefited American industry, once it became the world’s dominant economy, the United States could only benefit from greater engagement with the world. There was another point too – if the sacrifice of United States troops was to mean anything (around 300,000 Americans had died, with another 750,000 injured) then the people of western Europe needed protection from takeover by totalitarian regimes, and that meant making western Europe prosperous as quickly as possible. The situation in Japan was similarly in the hands of the United States, where the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced an unconditional surrender and demonstrated the awesome, worldwide power of the American military. While Hiroshima remained a symbol of the human cost of nuclear weapons, the United States showed immense vision in helping its defeated enemy to build a peaceful society.

In 1947 President Truman and his secretary of state George Marshall proposed an aid package of $13 billion to 16 western European countries. A good proportion of the Marshall Plan money was, naturally enough, used to buy American goods, since theirs was the only industrial economy able to fill orders. American goods flooded eastwards and economic ties between western Europe and America became ever stronger. The Marshall Plan was sold to the Republican-dominated Congress as a bulwark against communism, and when Stalin refused the offer of help (and prevented any eastern European countries from accepting it), Europe was formally divided into two. Truman’s support for anti-communist regimes in Greece and Turkey was the beginning of the so-called Truman Doctrine, which divided the world and effectively defined the west as ‘the free world’, with the United States as its leader.

The deterioration in diplomatic relations turned into military confrontation – for 40 years the two blocs, with an ever-increasing armoury on each side, faced each other across the Iron Curtain. The real possibility emerged that humanity might destroy itself when, in 1949, the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first hydrogen bomb led to an arms race based on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly abbreviated to MAD). The fate of humanity rested on the belief that no leader would start a nuclear war that would destroy his own country. This was an extraordinary time in the history of Europe. Western European citizens were able to travel freely almost anywhere in the world, except to the eastern part of their own continent. The post-war generation in the west grew up assuming that countries like Romania and Poland, and cities such as Prague and Dresden, were for ever beyond their reach, locked away behind impenetrable borders. Visits to the east were restricted and supervised by government agents, and so hardly anyone went.

The anti-communism that had helped the Marshall Plan through Congress began to be an ingrained part of western, and in particular American, life. Fear of the Soviet Union fed increasing paranoia about communist subversion within America itself. In 1947 Republicans in Congress put the House Un-American Committee on a permanent footing, while President Truman, fearful of being outflanked, ordered a ‘loyalty review’ of all three million federal government employees. In 1948 a former member of the State Department, Alger Hiss, was arrested as a Russian spy, and five years later an apparently innocuous New York couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Communist agents were, it seemed, everywhere. In 1950 and 1952 Congress passed bills banning activities that would ‘contribute to the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship’ and blocking entry to the United States to anyone who had ever belonged to a ‘totalitarian group’. Suspicion and the fear of falling under suspicion infected every soul in the country. In 1952 and 1956 Americans elected the reliable conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency and, in Hugh Brogan’s memorable phrase, ‘A grey fog of timid conformity settled over American middle-class life.’ In desperately trying to fend off totalitarian communism, the land of the free was allowing itself to be shackled by its own thought police.

In the decades of the Cold War, it became a strategy within American politics to imply that tolerance of diversity, willingness to negotiate, liberalization of social laws, and avoidance of war were somehow non-American. In foreign policy any enemy of communism, no matter how unsavoury, was given American support. The Truman Doctrine allowed America to get involved anywhere in the world, and fatally confused what was good for America with what was good for the world. But the United States was also instrumental in setting up the United Nations and committed itself to supporting and working through multilateral institutions. The balance between exporting American values and working multilaterally became the crucial test of American foreign policy.

Eisenhower managed for the most part to keep the United States out of foreign entanglements – including ending the Korean war in 1953 and coming down hard on the 1956 Suez debacle. But foreign policy was driven by the concerns of American corporations; in 1953 the CIA engineered a coup in Guatemala to preserve the national monopoly of the American-owned United Fruit Company, and when in the same year Dr Mossadegh deposed the autocratic Shah of Iran, the CIA and MI6 intervened to bring him back to power in order to preserve American oil interests.

In 1945 Americans had an understandable fear of slipping back into the economic depression of the pre-war years. But the industrial effort that effectively sealed the outcome of the war also secured a lasting economic boom. In the four years of their participation in the war, the United States produced 3 million aircraft, 87,000 ships, 370,000 artillery pieces, 100,000 tanks and armoured vehicles and 2.4 million trucks. The federal government spent $350 billion on the war – double what all previous governments had spent in total since independence. Between 1939 and 1945 the United States Gross National Product doubled, civilian employment increased by 20%, and corporate profits and wages rose significantly. Certain parts of the country did particularly well – aircraft and electrical production was concentrated in the west, particularly in California, which received 10% of federal wartime spending. A region known for its agriculture and movies became an industrial dynamo.

To be continued.

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