Hot, Cold and Imperial

The question of how the world should be run, and America’s part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today’s world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation? Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the “unfinished business” of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.

World War II, according to Gregor Dallas, never ended: it just stopped where the armies of East and West met, and almost immediately morphed into the cold war. This was because although the Soviet Union had achieved its war aim—an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans—America had not achieved its aim, which, it will come as no surprise, was to convert the whole of Europe to democracy and free enterprise. The cold war started when Truman realized that “democracy” did not mean quite the same to Stalin as it did to the Americans.

That, in a nutshell, is the main argument of Dallas’s discursive but fascinating book, made up of myriad fragments like a collage. Dallas justifies his method by quoting the Polish poet Czesl/aw Milosz: “You can only express things properly by details. When you’ve observed a detail, you must discover the detail of the detail.” Nevertheless, underlying the book is an eminently sound proposition: that the war against Germany (Japan is scarcely mentioned) was simultaneously a struggle to control the post-Nazi future. Behind every military decision lay a political calculation. Indeed, Dallas’s book is so much taken up with the jostling for postwar position that it sometimes loses sight of the fact that till 1945 a war was still being fought against Nazi Germany. But even in defeat, Hitler, too, influenced the shape of post-Nazi Europe, by his choice of where to fight, how hard to fight, whom to surrender to—and whom to kill. By the end, he preferred to have Germany conquered by Slavic communism than by the decadent democracies.

Dallas dates the turning point of the war to July 1943, with the German failure to push back the Russian …

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Letters

The War That Never Ended’ October 19, 2006

Which Road to Berlin? September 21, 2006