How We Got Here (5)

May 22, 2014

The world the war remade

Now, before we consider the Japanese-American conflict, let’s look at how the first two years of World War II had already changed Europe. Since we are looking backwards, we want to see it in light of what happened later, rather than what had happened before. A quick overview shows that every important postwar trend had its roots in those first two years.

1. The Netherlands and France were overrun and occupied. These were both major colonial powers. Defeat of the mother country by Germany left their colonies in Asia unprotected. Thus, Japan occupied Indochina in 1940 and, immediately after Pearl Harbor, overran the Dutch East Indies. After the war, neither mother country would be able to resist what was called national liberation. Indochina became Vietnam (and then for 20 years North and South Vietnam, and then again Vietnam). The Dutch East Indies gained independence in 1949 as the Indonesia, and quickly became one of the leaders of the nonaligned (between the communists and the West) nations. French territories in Africa escaped occupation by Axis powers, but French defeat sowed the seeds that would sprout in the 1950s, resulting within a few years of the transformation of the French Empire into a loosely tied francophone community of independent African nations.

2. Great Britain for the second time in 20 years strained every nerve to maintain itself against an overpowering force. British armed forces were equipped by American factories and supplied by American ships. In the period before America entered the war, those arms and those shipments had to be paid for. The money could only come from liquidation of overseas investments. In effect, that first two years of war accelerated the liquidation of the British financial empire which the first World War had begun. Although Britain emerged from the war victorious (in that its enemies had been defeated), it emerged bankrupt, rationed, and exhausted from the death-struggle, much of its domestic infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Heavy American postwar pressure to decolonize, combined with economic exhaustion and pressures from nationalists in India and elsewhere resulted, within 15 years, of the British Empire joining the other imperial casualties of the 20th century.

3. Italy lost not only Albania (which it held briefly) but Ethiopia, which it had conquered in 1935, and Libya which it had held for 40 years. Germany had already lost its overseas colonies in the 1919 peace treaty that ended World War I. And Belgium, unable to fight the postwar anti-colonial tide, would give up the Belgian Congo in 1960. All these countries – all of Europe, in fact, other than Spain and Portugal, which had remained neutral in the war — would henceforth confine their energies and activities to Europe. The age of European domination of the world was over. Its successors, as we have seen, were the two opposing superpowers, the daughters of Europe.

Of these two, America was the only truly global superpower. Only the United States had found a two-ocean war. The British navy had participated in some naval actions in the Pacific, but, naturally, had concentrated its effort in the North Atlantic which was vital to survival. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan three months after the German surrender, as promised at Yalta, which, as it turned out, was just one week before Japan finally quit. The overwhelming bulk of the war against Japan was fought by China and by the United States.


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