Towards a bipolar world (1945–1953)
The end of the Second World War did not signal a return to normality; on the contrary, it resulted in a new conflict. The major European powers that had been at the forefront of the international stage in the 1930s were left exhausted and ruined by the war, setting the scene for the emergence of two new global superpowers. Two blocs developed around the Soviet Union and the United States, with other countries being forced to choose between the two camps.
The USSR came out of the war territorially enlarged and with an aura of prestige from having fought Hitler’s Germany. The country was given a new lease of life by its heroic resistance to the enemy, exemplified by the victory at Stalingrad. The USSR also offered an ideological, economic and social model extending as never before to the rest of Europe. Furthermore, the Red Army, unlike the US army, was not demobilised at the end of the war. The Soviet Union thus had a real numerical superiority in terms of men and heavy weapons.
The United States was the great victor of the Second World War. Its human and material losses were relatively low, and even though the US Army was almost completely demobilised a few months after the end of hostilities, the United States remained the world’s leading military power. Its navy and air force were unrivalled, and until 1949 it was the only country with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. It also confirmed its status as the world’s leading economic power, in terms of both the volume of trade and industrial and agricultural production. The US now owned more than two thirds of the world’s gold reserves and the dollar became the primary international currency.
The conflicts of interest between the new world powers gradually multiplied, and a climate of fear and suspicion reigned. Each country feared the newfound power of the other. The Soviets felt surrounded and threatened by the West and accused the United States of spearheading ‘imperialist expansion’. For their part, the Americans were concerned at Communist expansion and accused Stalin of breaching the Yalta Agreement on the right of free peoples to self-determination. The result was a long period of international tension interspersed with dramatic crises which, from time to time, led to localised armed conflicts without actually causing a full-scale war between the United States and the USSR. From 1947, Europe, divided into two blocs, was at the heart of the struggle between the two superpowers. The Cold War reached its first climax with the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in the summer of 1949 reinforced the USSR in its role as a world power. This situation confirmed the predictions of Winston Churchill, who, in March 1946, had been the first Western statesman to speak of an ‘Iron Curtain’ that now divided Europe in two.