World War II: The World After the War

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

The world in 1945 was very different from the one before World War II. The terror and mass murder of Nazi Germany had been eliminated, and Japan’s attempt to conquer much of Asia had been defeated. If these two things had not happened, the history of the rest of the twentieth century would have been very different. The end of the war brought many changes in the way people lived and the way they looked at their world. Some of those changes were a result of what the war had cost the world. The most obvious cost was the loss of life.

Millions Die in Europe

The exact number of people killed during the war is not known, but the losses were staggering. Fifty or perhaps sixty million people died throughout the world, more than in any other war—more than for any reason in such a short time in human history. In Europe, only about half these deaths were soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The rest were civilians. By comparison, in World War I only 5 percent of war casualties were civilians.

These men, women, and children died in many ways. They were crushed by the roofs and walls of their houses when air raids shattered their cities. They were blown up by mines on the roads as they tried to escape advancing armies, or died hiding in fields and forests in winter without enough food. Many thousands were hanged or shot by the Germans in retaliation for attacks on German forces. Millions, including nearly 6 million Jews, were deliberately murdered by the Nazis, machine-gunned and dumped into mass graves or gassed in death camps specially created for this purpose. (Nazi persecution of Jews is described in Chapter 7.)

In some places, the proportion of civilian deaths was especially high. The Netherlands (often called Holland; in English, the people are called Dutch) lost 200,000 people out of a population of less than 9 million during the German occupation. An occupation is when foreign military forces are stationed in a country to control it. Though the German occupation of the Netherlands was harsher than in other parts of western Europe, the citizens of many of the countries that Germany occupied during the war suffered greatly. (German occupation is discussed in Chapter 6.) Ninety-five percent of the people killed were civilians. The French lost 600,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians.

But no people in western Europe were treated as savagely as the people of eastern and southeastern Europe. In Yugoslavia, about 1.5 million people died. Only about 300,000 were soldiers. In neighboring Greece, about 250,000 died, the overwhelming majority civilians.

Poland lost approximately 300,000 soldiers in the war. Some died when Germany first invaded in 1939. Others died later while fighting the Germans with the British and American armies in western Europe and with the Soviet army in eastern Europe. This figure, however, is only a small part of the cost to Poland. All told, 6 million Poles, including 3 million Jews, died in World War II. More than one out of every five Poles was killed. If the United States lost the same proportion of its 1999 population, that would be more than 55 million people.

The Soviet Union (Russia) lost still more. At least 20 million, possibly as many as 40 million, Soviet citizens died from June 1941 to May 1945, including more than 7 million soldiers. One million Russian civilians died just in the city of Leningrad, surrounded by the Germans for two-and-a-half years.

British and American Losses

The other two major Allies who fought against Germany, Britain and the United States, were far less devastated. Britain fought the war from the first day to the last, for a while almost alone. In that long struggle, 250,000 of its soldiers died. Another 100,000 troops from the countries of the British Commonwealth (independent countries that had been British colonies and still had close ties to Britain) and from British colonies also died. Among these were 37,000 from Canada, 24,000 from India, and 23,000 from Australia.

But there was no fighting in Britain itself, no invading army to burn its villages, no occupation force that arrested and murdered its citizens. But this did not mean all its people were safe. German planes bombed its large cities, killing 60,000 people, half of them in London.

Almost 300,000 American men died fighting Germany and Japan. But no enemy soldier set foot on the American mainland except as a prisoner. No enemy plane dropped a single bomb on the United States. (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states.)

Axis Powers Pay a High Price

The Axis powers (Germany and its allies) also suffered terrible losses. Italian deaths were around 400,000, about half of them civilians. Hungary lost 400,000 soldiers and Romania probably almost as many. Civilian deaths, especially in Hungary, were very high.

Germany, the country that began the war, paid one of the highest prices. Only the Soviet Union lost more soldiers; only the Soviet Union and Poland lost more civilians. More than 4 million men died fighting in Germany’s armed forces. Six hundred thousand Germans, including 150,000 children, were killed by Allied bombing raids. An unknown number of civilians, perhaps 1 million more, died trying to escape the Soviet Union’s Red Army as it moved into Germany from the east in the last months of the war. Some of these civilians died due to exposure (being stranded out in the cold), or drowned in half-frozen rivers while trying to cross to safety. But Soviet troops purposely killed many in revenge for the German army’s brutal treatment of Russia’s soldiers and citizens when it invaded Russia in June 1941.

Physical and Psychological Wounds

In addition to the millions of deaths, there were at least as many soldiers and civilians wounded during the war, many of them permanently disabled. For most countries, the number of wounded soldiers was higher than the number of dead. This was usually true of civilians as well. For example, in Germany, 800,000 civilians were seriously injured in air raids.

Millions of soldiers had been held as prisoners of war. Prisoners faced hunger and malnutrition. In some cases they were treated inhumanely by their captors. Even those who had been treated humanely, such as Axis prisoners of the Allies, were sometimes weakened for the rest of their lives. The psychological effects of being a prisoner were also often very serious. This was even more true for the survivors of concentration camps.

The effects of hunger and malnutrition were not limited to prisoners. Much of the population of occupied Europe never received adequate food. Sometimes, as in the still occupied Netherlands in the last winter of the war, people starved. Wartime conditions, including malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, and a lack of medical care, also increased the incidence of disease. There were 1.5 million cases of tuberculosis in Poland in 1945.

Villages, Towns, Cities, and Countries Destroyed

The physical destruction caused by the war was even easier to see than the human loss. Some examples from a few countries make the extent of these losses clear. In the Soviet Union, 28 million people had their homes destroyed. Forty thousand miles of Soviet railroads were wrecked. Seven million horses and 17 million head of cattle had been taken by the Germans. Almost every town and city in this vast region— 1,710 of them—suffered serious damage, and many were in ruins. The same was true for 70,000 villages.

In France, 1 million buildings were damaged or completely destroyed. Sixty percent of the country’s machine tools and almost all its coal and iron supplies had been taken to Germany. The railroads, roads, bridges, and harbor facilities had all suffered extensive damage, much of it from Allied bombing during the German occupation of France.

Germany itself had been the scene of great land battles at the end of the war and had also been the target of the largest air attacks for the longest period of the war. About 15 percent of the country’s houses had been destroyed and another 25 percent damaged. Only the smaller towns and villages had escaped the bombing. The transportation system had collapsed, which meant that even the factories that had not been destroyed could not get raw materials and had to shut down. Mass starvation was avoided only because the conquering Allied armies brought in food.

It would be misleading to downplay the extent of the human misery that Europe suffered as a result of World War II. But the most surprising aspect is how quickly Europe recovered economically. In part, this was due to the help of the United States who provided extensive economic aid. Also perhaps, it was because more European leaders and their people saw a need to put aside the old rivalries that had led to war and work together to rebuild Europe.

Even before the war was over, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands agreed to form an economic union. Before too long, these three small countries and France joined with two of their World War II enemies, Italy and West Germany, in what eventually became the Common Market. (West Germany was the part of Germany that did not become communist; this development is described later in this chapter.) The Common Market grew until most western European countries were members. At the end of the twentieth century, it looked possible that the old dream of a united Europe might at last become a reality.

The Division of Germany

Unity, however, came after many years of division. Before the war ended, the Allied leaders decided that Germany would be divided into four zones, each occupied by one of the four great powers that had fought Germany. These four were the United States, Britain, and France, usually called the western Allies, and the Soviet Union. The four powers had not decided on Germany’s long-term future. Some Allied leaders believed Germany should be kept divided forever, to prevent the country from becoming powerful enough to start another war. For the same reason, a few even wanted to turn Germany back into a farming country, without the industry necessary to fight a modern war.

There had always been significant disagreements between the Soviets and the western Allies. (These issues are described in Chapter 9.) In general, these had been put aside to win the war. But they became paramount once the war was over. The division of Germany was one of the major points of conflict. The Soviet Union, which was officially communist, began to turn the eastern zone of Germany into a communist country. (Communism is a political and economic system based on government control of the production and distribution of goods and the abolition of private ownership of factories, banks, and most other businesses.) The western Allies began to see the rest of Germany as a valuable partner in the conflict with communism.

Increasingly, this conflict interfered with every attempt at four-power cooperation. Within a few years, the conflict became a Cold War, a worldwide struggle between the United States and its supporters on one side and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. All the countries of eastern Europe, controlled by the Soviet army, would become communist. All the countries of western Europe would reject communism; many would join the United States in a permanent military alliance called NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Germany would be one of the main focal points of the conflict. But, especially at the beginning of the occupation, there were still times when the four powers worked together.

Denazification and War Crimes Trials

For many of the people in the Allied nations, the warin Europe was not only—or even mainly—a war against Germany.

It was a war against Nazism, the brutal system based on race hatred that had turned Europe into a vast prison camp and slaughterhouse. (The special nature of the Nazi system, and how it affected World War II, is discussed in Chapter 1.)

Many people had known, in a general way, about the crimes the Nazis were committing. The Soviets publicized the fact that German forces massacred thousands of people in each area they conquered. Rumors about the Nazi treatment of Jews and of Soviet prisoners of war were widespread. During the war, the Allies publicly stated that the Nazis would be held responsible for these crimes and that their punishment was one of the aims of the war against Germany.

Later, Allied leaders and ordinary people throughout the world began to learn of the enormous scale of Nazi crimes. As Allied soldiers reached the concentration camps of Germany, they found the remains of hundreds of thousands of victims and thousands more barely alive. As survivors and witnesses began to talk, as Nazi documents and records came to light, it became clear that Nazi Germany was not just a normal country. Its leaders had planned and carried out the murder of millions of civilians, including an attempt to kill all the Jews of Europe.

Perhaps even more than punishing the guilty, the Allies were determined to destroy the entire Nazi system. In the words of the high command of the American armed forces, “Nazism must be completely and finally removed from all aspects of German life.” This meant barring active Nazis from official posts and removing their supporters from important positions in the press and broadcasting, in the arts, in education. The plan was to completely wipe out Nazi teachings and doctrines. The entire process was called denazification.

At the beginning of the Allied occupation, the Allied military authorities arrested and investigated thousands of Germans. Thousands more were questioned about their activities during the Nazi era. They were classified as major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers, or non-Nazis. The denazification process caused great resentment among many Germans. People who had played a minor part in the government during the Nazi years and told the truth were sometimes treated more harshly than those who had been fanatical Nazis but lied. In addition, the system worked differently in the four zones of Germany. The western occupation authorities soon began to overlook some Germans’ Nazi pasts if they could help rebuild the German economy or help them in the growing conflict with the Soviet Union. The most famous example of this is the German scientists who developed the American missile and space programs. During the war, these men had worked on the German rocket program, which depended heavily on the use of slave labor.

In all three western zones, many judges, lawyers, and police officials who had served throughout the Nazi period continued in office. In the Soviet zone as well, former Nazis who cooperated with the new communist setup were often allowed to remain in positions of authority.

The Nuremberg Trials

The Allies believed punishing war criminals would help accomplish denazification, and they decided to create a special international court, called the International Military Tribunal, to put the Nazi leaders on trial. The four occupying powers were represented. The trial was held at Nuremberg in southern Germany, where the Nazi Party had held its rallies and proclaimed the racial laws against the Jews.

The defendants included twenty-two high officials of the German government, Nazi Party, and German military. The first set of charges was that they had committed crimes against peace. Basically, this meant the Nazis were charged with planning and waging wars of conquest. Some observers at the time, and some historians afterward, argued that the winners of any war might claim the same about their defeated enemies. The four countries that put the German leaders on trial could all be accused of having started a war to conquer territory sometime in their history.

The second set of charges involved war crimes. These are acts that are against the laws and customs of war. They include the use of civilian populations of conquered countries as slave workers, killing hostages, mistreating prisoners of war, and the unjustified “destruction of cities, towns, or villages.” Many of these actions violated treaties that Germany had signed.

But the Nazi leaders were also charged with a third set of actions, described as crimes against humanity. This was a new idea. These crimes included “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war.” They also included “persecution on political, racial or religious grounds,” whether or not this violated the laws in force in that country at the time the crimes were committed.

The Allies were essentially saying that the Nazis had done things that had to be considered crimes in all circumstances and at all times—even if the actions were considered legal by the government in power at that time. This idea is often considered the major accomplishment of the Nuremberg trials. It is closely related to the idea that following orders, even legal orders, cannot be an excuse for committing such crimes.

At the first Nuremberg trial, twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death and seven to prison terms, and three were found not guilty. A series of twelve other trials followed. Together, the evidence showed how every department of the German government, the military, and large sections of private industry were all involved in the crimes that the top Nazis had planned.

In this sense, the Nuremberg trials were show trials. While they were fair, their purpose was not simply to punish individual criminals. It was also to educate the public, including the German public, about what had happened and how it had happened.

The Last Wave of Killing

While the first Nuremberg trial showed the world the extent of Nazi crimes, other terrible events took place on Germany’s borders that received comparatively little attention— except in Germany. These events were a result of the border changes that the Allies had agreed to, giving Poland land that had long been German, in some cases for hundreds of years. (See box on p. 403.)

The Allies were afraid that Germany would never stop trying to get these areas back from Poland if large numbers of Germans continued to live there. The same was true of the German minorities in Czechoslovakia, in the regions bordering the Baltic Sea, and other parts of eastern Europe.

Two million Germans had already fled from East Prussia in early 1945, trying to escape from the advancing Soviet army. (These events are described in Chapter 12.) The following winter, as the Allies had agreed, there was a massive expulsion of the remaining Germans from eastern Europe. They were forced to leave their homes and move to western Germany.

From Silesia in southwest Poland and Pomerania farther north, from the Sudetenland and other areas of Czechoslovakia, from throughout eastern Europe, some 14 million Germans were forcibly deported. Like so many refugees throughout the war—a war that had now been over for almost a year—many of them were weak from hunger and cold, and they were often treated with great brutality. Historians estimate that 2 million people died during the expulsions.

The United States at the End of the War

The experience of the United States was very different from the devastation and exhaustion of Europe. American factories, railroads, and mines had not been damaged. During the war, American industry doubled its production. The American aircraft industry had employed 46,000 people before the war; now there were fifty times as many. They built 275,000 planes during the war. American factories produced the requirements of war in seemingly unlimited quantities—enough to supply the British army with most of its tanks and with 86,000 jeeps. In the Soviet Union, the soldiers and supplies of the Red Army traveled to the battlefront on American trucks. To protect their feet in the Russian winter, the United States sent millions of pairs of felt boot liners, made in American factories to Soviet specifications.

In 1945, the United States produced one-half of the world’s coal and two-thirds of its crude oil. Sixty percent of the world’s gold reserves were in the United States. The American merchant marine was now three times larger than Britain’s, which had been the largest in the world before the war. The United States had provided $30 billion in aid to its allies, including $13.5 billion to Britain and $9 billion to the Soviet Union. (These amounts were worth far more then than they would be today.)

Both in total amounts and compared with other countries, the United States was far stronger economically at the end of the war than at the beginning. It was the only major country for which this was true. The experience of World War II changed the United States as deeply as it changed the countries of Europe, but in very different ways. Many of these developments were already under way during the war and only sped up when it ended. (Life in America during the war is described in Chapter 5.)

One set of changes was directly related to these economic developments. At the beginning of the war in Europe, the United States was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression (1929-39), a severe economic downturn marked by falling industrial production and very high unemployment. The war created jobs for everyone, and despite the fears of many experts, these jobs did not disappear when the war ended.

One reason the American economy was able to convert to peacetime conditions was that Europe now depended on American farms and factories to supply its needs. Another was the sudden increase in demand for a wide variety of products. During the war, consumer goods were hard to buy, even though people earned enough money. For example, no passenger cars were built for several years. Instead the auto plants built tanks and army trucks. When the war ended, many Americans wanted a car and had saved the money to buy one. The same was true for many other products.

America Booms: The GI Bill

Millions of Americans felt that they needed to make up for lost time. Sixteen million Americans had been in the armed forces. Almost all had been sent away from home, even if they never left the country. Men had been separated from their wives and girlfriends, sometimes for many years. They wanted to get married, buy houses, start families, and do it all right away.

On June 22, 1944, a new law that was usually called the GI Bill went into effect. (GI, which stands for “government issue,” is the nickname for ordinary American soldiers.)

Almost all veterans (people who had been in the armed forces) were eligible. The law paid for their college tuition and provided some money to live on while they were in school. Millions of veterans took advantage of the bill, and there was a very large increase in enrollment in American universities, junior colleges, and community colleges. Other veterans finished their high school educations. The GI Bill was one of the major reasons why Americans became much better educated after the war than before the war.

Education became more important to Americans for another reason, too: they were having more children. The end of the war was the beginning of the baby boom, a large increase in the birthrate that continued for twenty years. Generally, a veteran with a good education could earn better money to support his growing family.

The GI Bill also allowed veterans to buy homes without a down payment and with low-interest loans. This meant that veterans could buy a house for a monthly payment lower than their rent. One million former servicemen and service-women took advantage of this provision by 1947. This section of the bill accounted for part of the large increase in home ownership. The war had created a housing shortage because so many people had moved into urban areas to work in war industries and very few resources were used to build residential housing during the war. In 1944, only 114,000 new houses were begun in America. The number exploded once the war ended, and it kept growing. In 1950, construction began on about 1.7 million homes.

Many of these houses were not in cities or existing towns. Instead, they were built in newly created suburbs. Large communities were developed outside cities, often consisting of hundreds or even thousands of quickly built, identical homes. The places where they were built had no industry or office buildings nearby. Instead, people lived in the suburbs and commuted—increasingly by private cars instead of trains or buses—on newly built highways to jobs in the cities. The new suburban areas rarely had enough existing stores for their rapidly expanding populations. Soon, malls would be created that drew shoppers from many surrounding suburbs. All of these things together changed the way average Americans lived.

America and the World

The United States was not only the largest economy in the world in 1945, but it was also the greatest military power. As tensions increased with the Soviet Union, the other great military power, Americans debated the proper role for the United States in world affairs.

World War II began only twenty-one years after the end of World War I. It was clear that Europe, and the world, could not afford to go through this terrible destruction once every generation. The leaders of the Allies, especially American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were determined to establish some way of dealing with future threats to peace before they turned into wars. The key, in Roosevelt’s opinion, was for the major nations of the world to act together.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, an organization called the League of Nations had been created, with some of the same ideas. All the countries of the world were supposed to meet, argue, and settle their disputes peacefully. If necessary, its members would use their economic and even their military power to enforce its decisions. (The League is explained in a box in Chapter 1, on p.6.)

But the League had failed; World War II was the final proof of that. Most historians believe one of the major reasons for the League’s failure was that the United States refused to join it, despite the fact that it was the idea of Woodrow Wilson, the president during and after World War I.

Throughout American history, many Americans had believed that the United States should stay out of Europe’s quarrels. They thought that America, protected by two great oceans, should remain safely isolated from Europe’s troubles and Europe’s wars. These ideas, usually called isolationism, were losing their attraction to Americans in 1945. The United States had no choice but to go to war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war in December 1941. But even before this, more and more Americans had believed that a victory by Adolf Hitler’s Germany would threaten their own freedom. As the war ended and Americans found out about the scale of Nazi crimes, opinions changed and the idea grew that the United States had to remain involved in world affairs to prevent future wars and to protect itself.

The United Nations

So when Roosevelt proposed the creation of a new world body, called the United Nations Organization, most Americans supported it. (The United Nations was the official name for all the countries fighting Germany and Japan in World War II.) Roosevelt thought the League of Nations had been ruined by endless debates because each member nation had its own interests. He believed that maintaining peace required the most powerful nations to agree on important matters and then work together—without the interference of smaller countries. So in Roosevelt’s plan for the United Nations, the decision to use armed force would not belong to the whole organization but to a small committee that included the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China. (China was included at Roosevelt’s insistence, and France was also added.) The great alliance that was fighting and winning the war would remain together and act as a police force for the world, as Roosevelt himself described it.

On April 25, 1945, only two weeks after Roosevelt’s death, the United Nations Conference on International Organization met in San Francisco. A charter, or constitution, for the new United Nations Organization was signed on June 26. A month later, the United States Senate approved the charter by a vote of 89 to 2.

Japan in Defeat

In some ways World War II had even more dramatic effects on Asia than on Europe. In Japan, 2 million people were dead, about 800,000 of them civilians. Its cities suffered more destruction from air attacks than those of any other country, partly because their wooden construction allowed the bombers to ignite huge fires.

Like Germany, Japan was placed under military occupation and run by the American military commander, General Douglas MacArthur, and his staff. As in Germany, the Americans were determined to destroy the Japanese political system and way of thinking, called militarism, that they believed had caused the war. Indeed, before the war, Japan was controlled by the army, war and conquest were glorified, and much of Japanese society was organized on military principles. Absolute loyalty and obedience were considered the highest virtues. (Japanese militarism is described in Chapter 1.)

The major wartime leaders of Japan were put on trial in Tokyo. Twenty-five were convicted, and seven were sentenced to death. Thousands of other Japanese, especially military men, were tried in various places that the Japanese army had ruled during the war. Many of them were charged with mis-treating Allied prisoners of war, and 900 were executed.

Japan received a new constitution, secretly written by General MacArthur’s staff. It said the emperor was a symbol of the nation, rather than a godlike person who had to be obeyed absolutely. It said that Japan would never again wage war, and it abolished the army; Japan would only have a small self-defense force. The constitution proclaimed equal rights for women and protected the workers’ right to form labor unions.

Japan also lost all its colonies. Manchuria and Taiwan were returned to China, and Korea became an independent country. The militarists had argued that Japan needed to conquer territory in Asia in order to prosper. Now, without the militarists, without colonies, and despite the devastation of the war, Japan soon became more prosperous than ever before, eventually developing into the second-largest economy in the world, after the United States. Instead of aircraft carriers, its shipyards built giant oil tankers; instead of tanks, its factories built automobiles. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that defeat in World War II led to a much better life for the people of Japan than would have come from victory.


In most of the rest of Asia, the civilian casualties were relatively low because most of the actual fighting took place in areas where very few people lived, such as New Guinea and the Pacific islands. There were exceptions to this, such as the destruction caused in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. (See Chapter 13.)

By far the greatest exception was China. No one has a clear idea of how many Chinese were killed during the years that Japan was waging war against their country. Historians give figures ranging from 2 million all the way to 15 million people.

The surrender of Japan did not bring peace to China. There had long been a civil war between the official Chinese government, run by the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang in Chinese), and the Chinese Communist Party. It had been pushed into the background while both sides fought Japan, but it had never completely ended. (See the box on p. 33) Although there were attempts to negotiate a truce, the fighting grew worse once the war was over. By July 1946, within a year of Japan’s defeat, full-scale civil war raged in China. It continued until 1949, when the Communists won complete control of the country.

Asian Empires

One of the most important long-term effects of World War II was its impact on the Asian colonies controlled by European countries. Three of these colonial powers—Britain, France, and the Netherlands—were on the winning side in World War II. But the war weakened all three and destroyed their ability to hold on to their empires.

One reason the colonials lost their status was that Japanese victories early in the war showed the native people of the colonies that Asians could defeat Europeans. The prestige of the colonial powers, which was partly based on their superior technology and military strength, had been seriously weakened.

Independence movements of varying sizes existed throughout the area before the war. The colonial powers, determined to retain their control, often made these movements illegal and jailed many of their leaders. In many places, Japan’s defeat of the Europeans was welcomed, and in some cases, these movements cooperated with the Japanese authorities. Pro-Japanese attitudes usually did not last long, however, because Japanese rule was very harsh. It became obvious that Japan wanted to treat these countries as its own colonies, not to set them free. Even so, Japan’s slogan of “Asia for the Asians” was not forgotten. (See the box on p. 100 entitled “The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere.”)

The future of the European empires was also influenced by the attitude of the United States. In 1941, even before the United States was at war, the United States and Britain issued a declaration called the Atlantic Charter. It committed the Allies to oppose territorial changes unless they were the “freely expressed” desire of the people involved. (The Atlantic Charter is described in Chapter 9.) This seemed to mean that the British, French, and Dutch should not get their colonies back unless the natives voted for their return.

This language reflected President Roosevelt’s strong opposition to colonies, an attitude that most Americans shared. Critics of American policy have often argued that the United States opposed colonies because it could influence and even dominate other countries through its economic power, without having to use its army or run a country directly. Whether or not this is true, Roosevelt’s attitude and American public opinion encouraged colonized people to seek independence.

The language of the Atlantic Charter and the general attitudes it reflected also had an influence on the people of the European colonial powers. After all, France and the Netherlands, among others, had just regained their own freedom after German domination. Reimposing French or Dutch rule in other countries seemed inconsistent with the reasons they had fought the war.

Restoring Control

Despite all these considerations, and despite their concern about displeasing the United States, on which they depended for economic aid, the colonial powers still did not want to give up their colonies. In some cases they used armed force—even the defeated Japanese army— to restore their control.

On August 17, 1945, two days after Japan announcedits surrender, the Indonesian National Party declared that the Dutch East Indies was now the independent country of Indonesia. They refused to return control of the government to Dutch officials, who were now being released from Japanese prisons. British troops soon arrived to accept the surrender of Japanese troops, disarm them, and put them in prisoner-of-war camps. But the British also tried to put the Dutch back in control. They found that they were outnumbered by Indonesian soldiers loyal to the independence movement. So the British released the Japanese troops, rearmed them, and, with British officers commanding them, used them to restore the Dutch to power.

Losing Control

Something very similar happened in the French colony of Indochina (the present-day countries of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The Allies had agreed that British troops should temporarily occupy the southern part of Vietnam, the largest of the three countries of Indochina. In Vietnam, an independence movement called the Viet Minh was taking over the country from the Japanese. When the small force of British troops arrived in September 1945, they used released Japanese prisoners of war to control the Viet Minh. In October, French troops arrived and reestablished French control, despite the Atlantic Charter. Before long war broke out between the Viet Minh and the French, lasting until the French were defeated in 1954.

The largest and most important European colony was India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The Indian independence movement, led by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, was committed to nonviolence, but it had used massive demonstrations to push for Britain to “quit India” even during the war. (Some of the developments in wartime India are described in Chapter 9.) By the end of the war, almost every British politician realized that Britain could not hold on to India. Britain was financially exhausted, and using force to crush the independence movement would be expensive, unpopular at home, anger the Americans, and might cause the Indians to abandon nonviolence.

British India was split into four countries: India, Pakistan (East Pakistan is now Bangladesh), Burma (present-day Myanmar), and Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). India became independent on August 15, 1947, exactly two years after Emperor Hirohito told the Japanese people that Japan had lost the war.