[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]
Why had the war led to a bipolar world? Look at the war’s results. Japan and Germany, the prime opponents, had been economically and militarily flattened. Equally exhausted were Italy, the third Axis power, which had been defeated in 1943, and France, which had emerged on the winning side under Charles DeGaulle, after defeat in 1940, and Great Britain, the only power to fight the entire war from September 1939 to September 1945.
The Soviets had lost 20 million people in the war, and had had most of their industrial heartland destroyed, either by Germans or by their own hand in “scorched earth” tactics. But the Red Army of 1945 far outnumbered American troops on the ground in Europe, and even outnumbered the troops of the Americans combined with their European allies. The West feared that the only thing preventing the Red Army from conquering its way to the Atlantic was America’s possession of the atomic bomb.
The Soviets feared that a continued American monopoly of atomic bombs, then hydrogen bombs, would sooner or later lead to an attack such as the one Hitler had made a few years earlier. Similarly, the Americans feared another Pearl Harbor, this time with atomic warheads. Hence, the arms race, and what came to be called the balance of terror. Hence, too, Soviet and American rivalry among what came to be called the Third World – the African, Asian, and Latin American countries whose alliance might amount to a flank attack by whichever power or social system captured their allegiance.
It was a long, expensive conflict. True, it was cheaper than another hot war would have been, but it was expensive enough. America’s triad of forces included a strategic air command that kept bombers in the air 24 hours a day, fleets of nuclear-powered attack submarines and carrier forces, and ground forces and Marines stationed in various countries around the world.
What was perhaps more expensive, in some ways, was that America – or rather, the people who got hold of the levers of power, whether elected officials, military officers, behind-the-scenes operatives of covert agencies, or other people whose money or connections bought them a passing measure of control — got into the habit of thinking that it was America’s right and responsibility to control events. Domestically, this led to ever more intrusive surveillance and manipulation of American citizens. Internationally, it led to ever more assertive efforts to influence other countries’ popular opinion, elections, and policies, and led to the pursuit of ever larger ability to project American military power – that is, to threaten. America had come a long way from its pre-World War II isolationist position.