The Chinese today are not seeking to destroy Americans’ way of life, as the Soviets were said to be doing in the 1940s. Indeed, the Chinese accept fundamental aspects of our capitalist marketplace, and they have similar interests in halting climate change, fighting terrorists, and combatting pandemics. China should be regarded as a serious rival as well as a crucial partner. But despite recent tensions, the rivalry is entirely less dangerous than the one with the U.S.S.R. after World War II—and the potential partnership so much more important to the welfare of both nations and to the global commons.
When the Cold War began, the world had just endured 30 years of global conflicts and a Great Depression. More than 8 million people died during World War I. More than 60 million died during World War II. In 1945, few Americans could imagine a long era of peace between great powers, and few were confident that wartime prosperity—a by-product of military spending—would persist. Europe and Asia were wastelands. Farms had been flooded, dikes destroyed, cattle slaughtered, bridges blown up, railroad lines decimated, and factories bombed. The two continents’ great industrial powers—Germany and Japan—were devastated and occupied. Britain was almost bankrupt. France was demoralized. Around the globe, democratic capitalism was in disrepute, widely blamed for the two wars and the Great Depression. “We are living in a time of massive popular counterrevolution against liberal democracy,” wrote Walter Lippmann, America’s foremost public intellectual, in 1955. “It is a reaction to the failure of the West to cope with the miseries and anxieties of the twentieth century.”
The United States did have two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves, three-fourths of its capital, and more than half of its manufacturing capacity. America’s GDP was three times that of the Soviet Union and five times that of Britain. Its Air Force dominated the skies; its Navy dominated the seas. Its aircraft carriers and marine divisions enabled it to project power across the oceans. Alone, it possessed the atomic bomb. Yet even though American power was preponderant, many of the brightest minds in the foreign-policy establishment feared that it might be ephemeral.
The Soviet Union was ravaged by the war and incomparably weaker than the United States. But the Communist regime had survived and triumphed over Germany, and gained legitimacy in doing so. Surrounded by vacuums of power, Stalin saw opportunities. Consolidating his hold on Eastern Europe, he also exerted pressure on Iran and probed to gain control of the Turkish straits.
Around the world, the Soviet Union’s ideological appeal was considerable. Less than two months after the Nazi surrender, the British people voted Winston Churchill—that icon of democratic courage—out of office and replaced him with a government of socialists who campaigned for the welfare state and the nationalization of key industries. The postwar leadership of the British Labour Party hated Soviet Communism, but that was not true of voters on the left in other countries. In France and Italy, the Communist Party garnered 20 to 40 percent of the popular vote in free elections. In Yugoslavia, Tito’s partisans took control. In China, Mao was gaining control of the mainland. And among an emerging generation of revolutionary nationalists in Asia and Africa, Marxism-Leninism resonated. Communist ideology attributed their countries’ backwardness to ruthless exploitation by their colonial masters. The planned economy of Stalinist Russia seemed to promise rapid development, modernization, and military power.