After ‘Victory in Europe,’ the Myths of the Post-war World
Seventy-five years ago, on May 8, 1945, days after Hitler had committed suicide and Allied troops rolled into Berlin, the Nazis signed an unconditional surrender, ending World War II in Europe. The stage was set for the next phase of history—most notably, the Cold War.
Jeffrey Taliaferro, associate professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, teaches a seminar on the World Wars. In the spring of 1945, he said, U.S. policy makers confronted challenges they had never had to deal with before, including America’s role in rebuilding Western Europe; the status of Eastern Europe; and its relationship with its wartime ally and soon-to-be-rival, the Soviet Union.
In the time since then, Taliaferro said, conventional wisdom has embraced certain ideas about how the immediate post-war period proceeded. The U.S. did not do enough to keep Eastern Europe from falling behind the Iron Curtain, for example. Or it was a given that the U.S. would launch a program like the Marshall Plan for economic recovery in Western Europe and join a military alliance like NATO.
But neither of those ideas was necessarily true in 1945, Taliaferro said.
The Soviet Union could not have been prevented from laying claim to Eastern Europe, after its army had liberated, and then occupied, states like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
“One of the great myths of the Second World War is that Franklin Roosevelt somehow sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta—the February 1945 meeting between Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and a very ill Roosevelt, where they considered the political future of postwar Europe,” Taliaferro said.
“The truth is more complicated. There was simply nothing the US could have done to prevent Eastern Europe from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence,” he said.
“Roosevelt knew there would be tremendous political pressure in the U.S. to bring the GIs home,” he said. “The U.S. simply did not have the will, or the personnel, to displace this enormous, two million-member occupying Soviet force.”
Roosevelt and Churchill had hoped Stalin would exercise a modicum of restraint and give Eastern Europe the veneer of being autonomous, but Stalin was not willing to do that, Taliaferro said.
Likewise, we think of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the World Bank as having been the inevitable outcome of the war, but none of this was a foregone conclusion at the time, Taliaferro said. “Institutions like NATO were a dramatic change in the way Americans thought about the security requirements of the U.S.,” he said.
And the Marshall Plan, which invested billions in Europe’s recovery, was a brand-new tactic, as well. “People in Washington would spend the next fifteen years trying to figure out what kind of economic commitments we needed to make to the states of Western Europe to help them rebuild.”
Nor, for that matter, was it preordained that the relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would take the antagonistic form that it would, he said. The Soviets and the Americans had conflicting interests, he said, “but there was room to maneuver.”
Today, the power dynamics between the major states—the U.S., Russia, and China—are again in flux, he said. “That doesn’t mean they are doomed to stay that way, or that the three major powers are doomed to be in perpetual conflict,” he said. “We are going to have areas where our interests are clearly going to come into conflict. But states and their leaders still have a great deal of agency.”
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.