AS 1945 began, the United States was phasing out of war and into
peace, a peace earned by defeating fascist aggression in Europe and
the Far East.
As 1945 ended, the United States was phasing out of peace and
into war, a war of nerves against a former ally that had aggressive
designs of its own.
Nineteen forty-five was a watershed year globally because it
marked the end of World War II and the start of the cold war
between the US and the Soviet Union. Events beginning in 1945 also
marked a turning point for Americans: Their historic yearning to be
free from foreign entanglements could no longer be indulged.
It "was the first year in their history that Americans had a
vision of world leadership and the power to act on that vision -
when the US moved from being a regional power in the Western
Hemisphere to being a global power," says Thomas Paterson, a
University of Connecticut diplomatic historian.
As the end of World War II neared, President Franklin Roosevelt
was so sure that a return to prewar normalcy was imminent that he
predicted all US troops would be out of Europe within two years.
Instead, the six-year conflict that cost $4 trillion and 40
million lives created circumstances that forced the US to remain
indefinitely at the center of world politics.
One such circumstance was the demand to construct a strong
United Nations, which US policymakers saw as the antidote to the
alliance systems, arms races, and power balances that had led to
two world wars in the 20th century alone. Paradoxically, the cold
war produced its own, far more lethal arms race that kept new
alliances on a hair trigger for four decades.
The US was also compelled to remain active in the international
arena by the need to design and implement a new trading system that
would open the world to US products and investment.
As the world's richest nation, America was also forced to
respond to the huge demand to provide aid to nations savaged by the
war, and to the millions of people displaced by it. Reconstruction
aid began flowing in late 1945 and culminated in the Marshall Plan
in 1948, which helped underwrite the economic renaissance of Europe.
The main force pushing the US onto the world stage was the
emerging threat of Soviet expansionism, which as early as the last
months of 1945 was confronting the Truman administration and
Congress with a difficult choice. As the Monitor's Richard Strout
explained at the time: "There is the question of whether America is
going to shake a fist at Russia while demilitarizing herself."
By the end of 1945, strains with Russia on two fronts were
providing unmistakable hints that cherished dreams of disarming and
returning to the isolationism of the prewar years were about to be
overtaken by events.
On the Eastern front, China was the focal point of US-Soviet
At war's end, both Washington and Moscow were nominally
committed to help the Chinese nationalist government of Chiang
Kai-shek regain control of territory liberated from Japanese
The US provided military, logistical, and financial support to
the corruption-riddled Chiang government. But the Soviet Union
provided clandestine aid to Chiang's rival, communist leader Mao
Tse-tung, secretly turning over to Mao "abandoned" Japanese arms
from areas occupied by Soviet troops under the terms of the
February 1945 Yalta agreement.
Determined to bring an end to the civil war, President Truman,
on Dec. …