Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

PART THREE
The Golden Moment: 1945-1963

At the end of World War II, no one was left standing except the United States. Wherever the war had been fought, there was ruin. Germany, England, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, parts of Africa, most of Europe, and much of Asia lay wasted. Their industries were either destroyed or exhausted in the war. Their economies had long since overspent real wealth. Their people were devastated, physically and spiritually. The Soviet Union alone had lost 20 million people, compared to fewer than 300,000 by the United States. Such was the magnitude of loss and confusion, everywhere but in America.

The one power still standing stood taller than before, taller than any other in the modern era. Where the war had crushed others, the USA was lifted. Before the war, the U.S. gross national product had not yet recovered from the collapse of 1929. But in 1945, it had more than doubled predepression levels. After the war, steel production alone was four times greater than during the depression, while the other steelproducing giants ( Japan, Germany, Western Europe) were crippled. By one estimate, at the end of the war, the average American enjoyed an income fifteen times greater than that of any foreigner. The United States produced half or more of the world's steel, oil, and electricity and three-quarters of the automobiles. In production sectors related to the war effort, no rivals existed. The United States possessed wealth of every kind--real capital and income, industrial capacity and know-how, spiritual selfconfidence, and intellectual and technical capital developed in the war effort.

If there could be a single symbol of American might in 1945, it might be the bomb. When the United States unleashed the atomic bomb in the summer of 1945, it did more than level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It signaled that the world had changed definitively. The older powers were less. The USA was greater. The political and economic globe was restructured. At that moment, only one nation had succeeded where others had tried. Only the United States was able to invent, produce, and deploy the ultimate weapon. Scientific knowledge, inventive genius, productive capacity, and moral force--no other nation but the United States could then lay claim to such wonderful national strengths--possessed all at once and demonstrated. To those who then admired America, its willingness to kill in such great numbers was, itself, a perverse sign of moral power. In 1945, it could have been said that the United States was the perfect fulfillment of the modern world. Knowledge set free was power. Power unleashed freed the world of war and evil. The bitter horror of those burned to death was, as always, the price of progress. There was only one flaw. The war had taught that it was too late to pretend the destructive side of progress would disappear. Still, millions pretended.

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