Legacies of World War II

World War II ended with the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945 and the surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945. Statistically, this military conflict overshadows every war ever fought. Some 1.7 billion people from 61 nations engaged in a struggle waged on the land, on the sea, and in the skies of Europe, East and Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The clash left behind a trail of carnage and destruction unparalleled in human history. World War II took the lives of some 55 million soldiers and civilians and destroyed untold amounts of property. It cost more to finance World War II than any war before it. Beyond the awesome and almost unfathomable statistics, the conflict left a permanent mark on all aspects of human experience and shaped the history of the postwar world. For a generation of men and women everywhere, World War II was “the war.”

World War II vastly affected the world, so some sort of understanding of the war is needed to grasp much of the present. However, how people know the war relates directly to their experience of the world after it. The war was global, so participants experienced only some aspect of it, thus making their war experiences unique. While the Japanese refer to World War II as the Greater East Asia War, the Chinese call it the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. For most citizens of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the war remains the Great Patriotic War, while Solomon Islanders call it, simply and appropriately, Big Death.

Contemporary politics and historical hindsight also affect current visions of the war and, therefore, visions of the world after the war. For example, Russian historians often have omitted or downplayed the importance of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy in concluding the war. However, they stress the strategic importance of the eastern front and the Red Army’s heroic campaigns against the Third Reich. Conversely, Americans have tended to view D-Day in Normandy as a key military operation, frequently ignoring the pivotal role of the USSR in ending the war in Europe.

In short, varying views on World War II have resulted in different histories and interpretations. Perhaps the most balanced assessment of World War II and its legacies is found in a global approach; one that downplays national or regional views, and instead focuses on war legacies affecting the larger world.

The Price of Total War

The most immediate legacy of World War II was the material damage and human suffering it inflicted. World War I (1914-1918) established a pattern of total war that nations quickly adopted in this conflict. Fundamental to the concept of total war was the premise that warfare is conducted between entire societies and their populations. Accordingly, World War II made enormous demands on economic resources and human beings. For example, governments collectively mobilized some 110 million people for military service. Moreover, the nature of the conflict ensured that an unprecedented number of women and children participated, often fighting in uniform alongside men. By 1943 Soviet leadership had added approximately 900,000 women (about 8 percent of all Soviet military personnel) to the Red Army. Meanwhile, as the Third Reich crumbled, Hitler called on 12-year-old boys to defend the fatherland. The mobilization of human resources, the unprecedented physical destruction, and the obscene number of human casualties were all part of waging total war.

During the course of the war, entire populations had become the legitimate targets of warfare, and by 1945 at least 55 million people had died. Any distinction between battlefront and home front had vanished, and over half of the dead were civilians, the victims of bombs, massacres, and famines. An even darker side of the war was the persecution and murder of entire populations viewed as enemies or undesirables. The Nazi regime targeted European Jews for physical annihilation, and in the resulting Holocaust more than 5 million Jews perished. The deliberate uprooting of ethnic populations and the transfer of prisoners of war and slave laborers resulted in the death of many more untold millions.

Total war also affected the economies of the world. At the end of the war, the United States accounted for almost half of all the goods and services produced in the global economy. The war had laid waste to every major industrial region in the world except for those of North America. The landscapes of much of Japan and central and eastern Europe were barren: their cities jagged with bombed-out ruins, their industries and shipping destroyed, and their waterways choked with debris. Agricultural production everywhere had fallen precipitously, and in Europe most of the 45 million homeless survivors of the war relied on American aid for sustenance. But while the war was measured in costs to human life, habitat, and industry, it produced much more than that.

The United Nations

Another legacy of World War II was the creation of a new international organization dedicated to promoting peace, cooperation, and human rights. In 1945 nations determined to maintain the hard-won peace of that total war founded the United Nations (UN). The UN is an association of sovereign nations that provides the machinery to cope with international disputes and to find solutions to problems that exceed the boundaries and means of national states.

The organization’s founding document, the United Nations Charter, was an international treaty obligating member states to settle their disputes by peaceful means—that is, to refrain from the threat or use of force against other states. The primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security rests with the 15-member Security Council. To enforce its decisions, the Council can impose economic sanctions on countries that threaten the peace. It can send peacekeeping missions to troubled areas to wedge opposing forces apart or implement a peace agreement. As a last resort, the Council can authorize coalitions of member states to use military action to deal with a conflict.

While the effectiveness of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts often is debated, most experts acknowledge that the UN positively affects the lives of many people. Through its specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program, or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN tackles problems facing people everywhere. Throughout the world, the UN and its agencies fight epidemics, combat famine, help advance the rights of women and children, assist refugees, help expand food production, and make loans to developing countries. For example, in the last 10 years UN agencies have made safe drinking water available to 1.3 billion people in rural areas, helped institute family planning programs in developing countries, and eradicated smallpox from the planet.

Justice in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and Tokyo

World War II also contributed to the development of international law. The victorious Allies were determined to bring to justice those believed to be responsible for starting the war and committing many of its atrocities. At the end of the war the Allies convened international military tribunals to try those who committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace.

At the war crime trials in Nürnberg, Germany (November 1945–October 1946), the primary defendants were the surviving leaders of the Nazi regime. Others, such as Adolf Hitler, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and German Police Commander Heinrich Himmler had committed suicide to avoid prosecution. The postwar trials in Nürnberg also tried industrialists who had taken advantage of slave labor as well as physicians charged with cruelly experimenting on human beings. Of the 22 major war criminals arraigned at Nürnberg, 12 were executed. The Western Allies held additional trials in their zones of occupation, and by 1960 they had tried more than 5,000 war criminals and executed 500 of those convicted. In separate proceedings, the Soviets tried 10,000 additional Germans and executed many of them.

The International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo (May 1946–November 1948) sentenced 7 out of 25 Japanese wartime leaders to death, including the former prime minister General Tojo Hideki. Throughout Japan’s former empire, additional war trials charged Japanese detainees with crimes ranging from the mistreatment of prisoners of war to cruelty inflicted on local populations. Over 900 of the accused faced execution.

While there was little controversy over trials and convictions on charges of war crimes, the introduction at Nürnberg and Tokyo of charges involving crimes against peace and against humanity raised two criticisms. First, before the war, no specific laws addressed crimes against peace or humanity, so those on trial could not have committed any crimes in a legal sense. Second, only persons from or allied with the defeated nations were tried, so the tribunals and their proceedings were seen by some as unfair. Nevertheless, in 1946 the General Assembly of the United Nations affirmed the principles recognized by the Tribunals’ judgement. And in 1950 an International Law Commission recognized war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity as violations of international law.

Jewish Survivors and the Establishment of Israel

An unintended outcome of the Nazis’ war against the Jews of Europe was the establishment of a Jewish state. The Holocaust had deepened the desire of Jewish survivors and Zionists (Jewish nationalists) to establish Palestine as a Jewish state capable of defending the world’s remaining Jews. Zionists had been settling in Palestine since the late 1800s, but the end of World War II heightened the Zionist yearning for these lands as a refuge and for religious fulfillment. Palestine, however, was no empty haven waiting to receive the Jews of Europe. Since the end of World War I, Britain had ruled Palestine and tried desperately to balance the interests of Jewish immigrants and the Palestinian Arabs who possessed the land. Britain limited the migration and settlement of Jews while it promised to protect Arab political and economic rights, but its efforts to balance these competing aims fairly proved futile. Arab hostility to British rule and Zionist settlement, in conjunction with Jewish resistance to immigration quotas, resulted in repeated outbreaks of violence that British military forces could barely contain.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Britain announced its intention to withdraw from Palestine. The British placed the Palestine issue before the newly founded UN in 1947. The UN General Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states and the creation of international enclaves that included Jerusalem and Bethlehem, both of which contained sites of religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. While the partition plan was acceptable to most Jews, Arabs inside and outside of Palestine found this solution unacceptable. As the British completed their withdrawal, a civil war erupted between Arabs and Jews. In May 1948 the Jews in Palestine proclaimed the creation of the independent state of Israel, which provoked an attack by surrounding Arab nations. This first Arab-Israeli war ended in victory for the Jewish state. It also resulted in the flight of more than half of Palestine’s Arab population. To this day, the hostility engendered by the creation of Israel threatens the peace and stability of the Middle East.

Science and Technology

World War II catalyzed advances in science and technology and stimulated the maturation of planned research and development. Before the outbreak of the war, scientists in British, German, and Soviet research labs had been engaged in a “wizard war” of new combat-weapon technology. As governments made war-related research and development a national priority, scientists and engineers produced a dazzling array of new products and devices. For example, military demands for the ability to identify and pinpoint the location of targets propelled the development of radar. Likewise, the modern jet engine was born out of military demands. The U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development stimulated the production of destructive technologies, such as the proximity fuse and antitank bazooka rockets. But it also helped introduce DDT to combat malaria and sparked the widespread use of antibiotic penicillin for treating wounds.

Yet nothing shaped postwar military strategy and politics more than the scientific and technological developments that resulted in the ballistic missile and the atom bomb. As the tide of the war turned, the Nazi government called upon German rocket scientists to develop ballistic missiles, which carry explosives along a long, arced trajectory. In 1944 the Germans deployed some 4,300 V-2 rockets against targets in Western Europe and England. The harnessing of the atom for military aims was more dramatic in its effects. In 1938 German physicists had effectively demonstrated nuclear fission, and scientists in Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States subsequently assessed the prospects of constructing an atomic device. Ultimately, the U.S. government-sponsored efforts, code-named the Manhattan Project, developed the world’s first atomic bomb. In July 1945 a test explosion in New Mexico ushered in the nuclear age. Little or no official thought was given to the consequences of this potentially cataclysmic creation. In the Cold War world that existed after World War II, nuclear weapons, especially when attached to ballistic missiles, threatened to engulf the entire planet in an atomic blaze.

Superpower Rivalry and Cold War

The end of World War II signaled a dramatic change in global relations. The war seriously undermined the ability of Germany, Japan, Britain, and France to continue playing leading roles in the world. As these countries ceased to be great powers in economics, politics, and military might, two new superpowers, the United States and the USSR, took their place. The collective policies and actions of these superpowers dominated international relations and the global balance of power for more than 45 years.

The leaders of the United States and the USSR joined forces in 1941 to defeat their common enemies. Ultimately, it was the material and military resources of the two nations that ended the war. Yet this wartime alliance, which always had been a marriage of convenience, collapsed shortly after 1945 in the face of conflicting postwar aims and deep-seated ideological animosities. By 1947, both sides were engaged in what political observers labeled a “cold war.” Devoid of direct military confrontation, the Cold War soon extended beyond Europe and assumed the character of a global geopolitical and ideological rivalry that lasted until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The Cold War was not simply a great-power rivalry. At its heart was a conflict between different social, economic, and political systems, a conflict that dated back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. This clash of capitalism and democracy against socialism and one-party politics manifested itself in the division of the world into military alliances and political blocs. This division led to an unprecedented arms race that repeatedly threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. The Cold War also was responsible for diplomatic crises and warfare between pro U.S. and pro USSR forces in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other countries. Moreover, the competition between the superpowers influenced the foreign policies, political institutions, and economic systems of societies in almost every corner of the world.

Many nations—especially those recently freed from colonial rule—tried to avoid becoming pawns in the Cold War by announcing policies of nonalignment. However, the USSR and the United States used military and economic strategies to win what U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) described as “the hearts and minds of the underdeveloped and uncommitted peoples of the world.” Both sides backed often-brutal dictatorships to further their own geopolitical advantages. As the Cold War intensified during the 1960s, the process of decolonization kept pace.


Like the Cold War, decolonization—or the loss of colonial possessions—gave rise to great changes in global politics. World War II set the stage for the rapid collapse of European and Japanese empires. On the eve of World War II, the countries of Western Europe, with the notable exception of Spain, still ruled or otherwise controlled immense territories in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. In 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill confidently announced, “I have not become His Majesty’s Chief Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But Churchill was decidedly mistaken in his optimism.

German and Japanese victories in Europe and Asia had dealt a devastating blow to the military might of the European colonial powers and shattered their aura of invincibility. As nationalist independence movements in the colonies and protectorates arose, the public back home began to view overseas empires as liabilities. Continued imperial rule loomed as an unappealing financial burden as the prolonged war also seriously sapped the economic strength of imperial societies. Beginning in 1945 decolonization accelerated rapidly. As European imperialism expired, more than 90 independent nations joined the global community of national states, and some 800 million people became responsible for their own destinies.

By the 1990s the process of decolonization had essentially run its course. European empires either are extinct or are now miscellaneous claims to scattered real estate. Likewise, the resurgence of democracy in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the USSR, and the unification of Germany ended the Cold War. World War II gave rise to decolonization and the Cold War, and together they were responsible for forging the political and economic contours of the postwar world. While it is apparent that their force has been spent, it is less clear what will take their place. Meanwhile, technological and scientific advancements have continued to thrive in the world’s growing economies. The Jewish-Palestinian conflicts of the Middle East are largely unresolved. And the power of the UN and international law are challenged and reasserted continually. How these developments of World War II will continue to shape our world in the coming centuries is yet to be known, but understanding war gives us a greater possibility for understanding the world as it unfolds.

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