Courtesy Reuters

The Postwar Era: The Eagle and the Bear

The linkup of American and Soviet forces at Torgau on the Elbe in April 1945 may be taken as the event symbolizing a new era in international relations—one largely dominated by the central relationship between two great powers, later known as the superpowers. The meeting at Torgau meant the splitting of Germany, the preeminent European power for three-quarters of a century. Germany’s division was to be both a fixture of the postwar era and, additionally, a continuing source of unease. Also, the event dramatically initiated what was to become die Wacht an der Elbe, an American protection against the power of the East of what was to become a democratic Germany—and behind Germany an abiding American commitment to the security of Western Europe. Despite the misjudgments in the immediate aftermath of the war, the lessons of two world wars had been insinuated into American foreign policy. Finally, in the way of symbolism, perhaps the brief exchange of fire between Soviet and American forces on the Elbe provided an early harbinger of the tensions that were ultimately to emerge.

To be sure, the war had not entirely run its course. Yet within a matter of weeks Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Roosevelt, too, who through America’s immense power had become the dominant leader of the West, was gone. The war against Japan was yet to be completed, but because of the bomb, it turned out to be almost a sideshow. The Soviet motive for joining the war against Japan was more akin to that of Mussolini in 1940—to participate in the spoils as the war was concluded—than it was to the spirit of the grand coalition.

The American desire was to fulfill the promise of Wilsonian idealism, of the Four Freedoms, of collective security and of the peaceful resolution of disputes through new international institutions. Russian goals were to establish a firm communist base in Europe, to create a cordon sanitaire against Western power, and

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