The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction

By Robert McMahon | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
World War II and the
destruction of the old order

Explanations for the onset of the Cold War must begin with World War II. A conflict that ranks, by any conceivable measure, as the most destructive in human history, World War II brought unparalleled levels of death, devastation, privation, and disorder.

‘The conflagration of 1939–1945 was so wrenching, so total, so profound, that a world was overturned,’ notes historian Thomas G. Paterson, ‘not simply a human world of healthy and productive laborers, farmers, merchants, financiers, and intellectuals, not simply a secure world of close—knit families and communities, not simply a military world of Nazi storm troopers and Japanese kamikazes, but all that and more.’ By unhinging as well ‘the world of stable politics, inherited wisdom, traditions, institutions, alliances, loyalties, commerce and classes’, the war created the conditions that made great power conflict highly likely, if not inevitable.


A world overturned

Approximately 60 million people lost their lives as a direct result of the war, fully two—thirds of them noncombatants. The war's losers, the Axis states of Germany, Japan, and Italy, suffered more than 3 million civilian deaths; their conquerors, the Allies, suffered far more: at least 35 million civilian deaths. An astonishing 10 to 20%

-1-

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