As World War II combat operations ceased in Europe and the war drew rapidly to a close in the Pacific, the United States and its new president, Harry S Truman, faced many new challenges. War criminals had to be punished, Europe and Japan had to be rebuilt, the global economy had to be restructured, and the United States had to ensure that another world war would not erupt.
At first, Truman seemed unfit to solve these problems. The product of a Missouri political machine, he had minimal experience with international affairs, having served only as senator and then just months as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth-term vice president. Despite his relative inexperience, however, Truman quickly acclimated to his new position and proved capable of tackling these postwar problems.
The process of rebuilding Europe began almost a year before Truman became president, when the United States invited Allied delegates to discuss the postwar world in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July 1944. At the conclusion of the conference, delegates had created two major world financial institutions: the World Bank, to help stimulate development in third world countries, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to regulate exchange rates.
Stalin’s representatives were, however, involved in the formation of the United Nations, which was intended to promote international security and prevent future global conflicts. Meeting in April 1945, just days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s succession to the presidency, delegates drafted the organization’s founding charter, which closely resembled the charter of the failed League of Nations after World War I. Because World War II had proved that the United States could no longer remain isolated from world affairs, the new charter passed easily through the Senate ratification process that summer. According to the charter, the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and the USSR each would have a permanent seat and veto power on the governing Security Council.
One of the first tasks for the United Nations was the creation of the Jewish nation of Israel. Carved out of British Palestine along the eastern Mediterranean, this new state became the home for millions of displaced Jews who had survived centuries of persecution. Hoping to keep the Soviet Union out of Israel, win Jewish-American votes, and capitalize on the American public’s postwar sympathy for the Jewish people, Truman ignored his foreign policy advisors and officially recognized Israel in 1948. Although the decision gave the United States a strategic foothold in the Middle East, it also ruined relations with the Arab countries in the region and Muslim nations around the world.
The process of rebuilding Japan began almost as soon as the war ended. The commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific, U.S. Army general Douglas MacArthur, spearheaded the democratization and reconstruction process—a daunting task considering the widespread devastation throughout Japan. MacArthur rounded up ranking officers in the Japanese military leadership and tried them as war criminals in the Tokyo trials. The Japanese, for their part, accepted defeat and worked hard to rebuild their country under U.S. guidelines.
Within a year, MacArthur and the Japanese drafted a new democratic constitution, and the United States pledged military protection in exchange for a promise that Japan would not rearm. The new constitution and reforms allowed Japan to recover quickly from the war and eventually boast one of the largest economies in the world.
Rebuilding Germany proved to be a far more difficult task. At the time of the German surrender in 1945, British, French, American, and Soviet troops occupied different regions of the country. Although located deep within the Soviet-occupied zone in the east, the German capital city of Berlin also contained troops from each of the other three countries, occupying different districts.
Although all four nations agreed that it was necessary to punish the Nazi leadership for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials, none of the powers wanted to relinquish control of its occupied territory. It quickly became clear that the problem of control in Germany would simply remain unresolved. The British, French, and American occupation zones eventually merged into the independent West Germany in 1949, while the Soviet half ultimately became East Germany. All four powers, however, continued to occupy Berlin jointly—likewise splitting it into West Berlin and East Berlin—until Germany was finally reunified in 1990.
The Soviet Union in particular wanted to exact revenge on Germany by dismantling its factories and demanding outrageous war reparations. Truman realized, however, that punitive action would only destabilize Germany further, just as it had after the signing of the unforgiving Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I.
In 1947, Truman’s secretary of state, George C. Marshall, pledged that the United States would grant more than $10 billion to help rebuild Europe if the European nations themselves worked together to help meet this end. Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany complied and came together to lead postwar Europe—an early precursor to the European Community and European Union that would come later. The Marshall Plan, as it came to be known, stabilized Western Europe financially and prevented economic collapse. Within ten years, European factories had exceeded prewar production levels, boosting the standard of living and ensuring that Communism would not take root.
Although the United States and the Marshall Plan controlled West Germany’s fate, Stalin dictated policy in occupied East Germany. Determined to build a buffer between Germany and Moscow, the Soviet Red Army established Communist governments in the eastern capitals it occupied at the end of the war. As a result, the USSR created an “iron curtain” that effectively separated East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from the West.
In 1948, Stalin attempted to drive British, French, and American forces out of Berlin by cutting off all highway and railway access to the Western-controlled portion of the city. Truman refused to withdraw U.S. troops; control of Berlin had become such an enormous symbol in the U.S.-Soviet standoff that Truman could not afford the political cost of caving under Stalin’s threats. Instead, he ordered American airplanes to drop millions of tons of food and medical supplies to West Berlin’s residents in 1948 and 1949. Americans and Europeans hailed the Berlin airlift as a major victory over the Soviet Union. Stalin eventually ended the Berlin crisis when he reopened the roads and railways in 1949.