By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came into existence, and it formally converted Germany from being America’s enemy into an ally. Its creation followed American success in the Berlin airlift, which was one of the first flashpoints of the Cold War, when in 1948, the Soviets had speculated that they might take over the whole of Berlin.
Berlin’s Curious Position
Berlin was right in the center of East Germany, the zone that had been overrun by Russian tanks at the end of the war, and was completely inside the Soviet zone.
But because it had been the capital of Hitler’s Germany and was a symbolically important place, Berlin itself was divided up, originally into four zones: a Russian one, an American one, a British one, and a French one. Very quickly, that was simplified into two—the Russian zone in the East and the allied zone in the West.
The Allies—the West Germans and the Americans—were given access routes through East Germany from the west to the city of Berlin itself so that they could bring supplies and personnel in and out of the city. It remained one of the hot spots of the Cold War throughout the ensuing years, and, in 1948, the Soviets speculated that they might be able to get rid of this anomaly.
Their method of doing so was to cut the access roads, which ran through East Germany, because that presented the Americans with the challenge of getting to Berlin by fighting their way through.
But rather than do that and escalate the military situation, the Americans took an alternative approach. They decided to fly over the blockade. Consequently, for about nine months in 1948 and 1949, American supply planes flying from West Germany brought supplies into West Berlin to keep West Berlin alive.
After this nine-month standoff, the Soviet Union itself backed down and reopened the supply routes.
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Complexities due to NATO
The creation of NATO and its American leadership added new dilemmas and complexities to American foreign policy. A key member of NATO was France, but although it had been defeated by Hitler, it continued to have aspirations to world power status. The French, in particular, wanted to regain their colonial empire in North Africa and in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, among other places.
The French made a condition of their participation in NATO: American help in restoring their colonial empire. The Truman government felt very uneasy about that because they certainly preferred to be on the side of anti-colonialism.
However, because they regarded Western Europe as the most important zone of the Cold War, they reluctantly participated in helping the French Empire to attempt to reconquer its colonies in Southeast Asia, again.
The Suez Crisis
In 1956, another great dilemma came up forcing awkward decisions on the Allied powers. In 1956, the Egyptian leader, Nasser, seized and nationalized the Suez Canal, which was owned and run by an Anglo-French consortium. In response, the British army and the French, in collaboration with Israel, organized an attack to retake the Canal Zone from the Egyptians, which they regarded as an act of barefaced aggression.
President Eisenhower wanted to prevent an attack of this kind, though. He had to decide if he was going to support his English and French allies, or if he was going to turn against their policy for the sake of cultivating client states in the third world. In the end, he decided he would cultivate the clients.
He thus made various economic threats against Britain and France, forcing them to stop their military adventure to retake the Canal Zone. This is remembered as the Suez crisis, and it was a clear indicator that Britain was no longer capable of undertaking independent imperial adventures. From now on, its policies had to be subordinated to those of the United States.
Race to Develop Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear weapons development continued and, in fact, accelerated after the end of the Second World War, and became a decisive factor in the postwar geopolitical situation. The first Soviet atom bomb was exploded in 1949. America tested its first hydrogen bomb, the next generation of even more powerful weapons, just a year or two after that, in 1952.
At the end of the Second World War, the Americans had got hold of all the German aviation and rocket scientists they could, and so had the Russians.
There was also an intense interest in rocketry, because everybody understood that if one can have a guided missile carrying the weapon, they are no longer dependent upon the anxieties and the fallibility of a human pilot to deliver the weapon.
The 1950s was also the decade in which the first spaceship took off, the Russian Sputnik. It was a source of absolute amazement and horror to the Americans to see that the Russians had gotten ahead of them. It was a kind of clarion call to the American rocket scientists that they had to improve their own technology.
The space race in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, culminating in the American moon landing in 1969, was outwardly peaceful, but with profound military implications just half a step behind.
Common Questions about America’s Position Post World War II
Americans decided to fly over the blockade. For about nine months in 1948 and 1949, American supply planes flying from West Germany brought supplies into West Berlin to keep West Berlin alive.
In 1956, the Egyptian leader, Nasser, seized and nationalized the Suez Canal, which was owned and run by an Anglo-French consortium. In response, the British army and the French, in collaboration with Israel, organized an attack to retake the Canal Zone. President Eisenhower, with the intention to cultivate client states in the third world, supported Nasser and made economic threats against Britain and France, forcing them to stop their attempts to retake the Canal Zone. This is remembered as the Suez crisis.
America tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1952, just a few years after the first Soviet atom bomb was exploded in 1949.