If the Civil War was America's second revolution, the years after World War II marked a third revolution. Having created a new form of government and expanded it across much of North America, the United States now rebuilt western Europe, Japan, and South Korea from the ground up. Historians have devoted extensive attention to the vital role that local citizens and leaders played in charting new directions for these societies. This is undeniable, but the revolutionary impact of American policy deserves serious consideration as well. Men like George Marshall, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, Lucius Clay, and Douglas MacArthur forced the defeated societies to reconstruct themselves on America's model. In West Germany and Japan this meant the formulation of new constitutions that enshrined free speech, democratic elections, and capitalist markets. In western Europe as a whole, Washington pushed for regional integration along lines that resembled American federalism. Most importantly, through the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, the United States provided societies devastated by war with the material resources to finance private enterprise and citizen welfare. Life for those vanquished by war in western Europe and Japan changed radically after 1945, largely along lines compatible with American sensibilities.
Americanization of this kind was revolutionary, but it also had conservative consequences. Washington chose to work with local elites that had strong anticommunist credentials. In many cases, this resulted in the repression of radical ideas. The Communist Party in Italy, for example, suffered electoral defeat in April 1948 after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency provided the Christian Democratic Party and the Catholic Church with a large infusion of covert campaign funding. Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea were ripe for revolution after World War II, and the United States worked to make certain that these areas followed America's model. Democratic liberties and capitalist enterprise provided the foundation for U.S. directed reconstruction.
Soviet efforts to consolidate revolutionary change along communist lines in Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China inspired fears—some legitimate, some exaggerated—that Moscow would subvert the states in America's sphere of influence. The clash between American and Soviet revolutionary models gave rise to what contemporaries called the Cold War. In this prolonged ideological struggle, the lands devastated during World War II became the battlegrounds where the superpowers competed to influence the course of future developments. Both Washington and Moscow believed that they could only make the world safe for their respective ideals if key strategic areas in Europe and Asia followed their particular model of political organization. Americans expected that a Europe of liberal democracies would ensure long-term peace and prosperity. Soviet leaders hoped that a Europe of communist states would provide the resources needed to build something approximating Karl Marx's vision of a workers' paradise.
The incompatibility of these visions made the Cold War a prolonged period of Soviet-American hostility. Following the often-quoted advice of George Kennan—the chairman of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff between 1947 and 1949—Americans sought to protect their revolutionary ideals by containing the spread of communist influence. This meant increasing support for allies who appeared to share American sensibilities, while limiting the influence of dissidents. From a geopolitical point of view, it also required a permanent mobilization of force to deter Soviet incursions. The policy of containment, in this sense, militarized America's revolutionary influence overseas, adding to the nation's already evident distrust of diversity. It also created a short-term bias to the status quo. Social experimentation and cooperation with a devious enemy appeared too risky.
By the 1950s the Cold War had spread to what contemporaries called the Third World. These were former colonial possessions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that began to attain their independence in the aftermath of World War II. In general, the superpowers had limited strategic and economic interests in these areas. They drew extensive American and Soviet intervention, however, because they served as natural showcases for each government's revolutionary model.
The economist and policy adviser Walt Rostow was only one of many to argue for extensive U.S. sponsorship of Third World development in America's image. Prosperous markets and free societies, he explained, would increase the worldwide attraction of American-style liberty and enterprise. Otherwise, Rostow warned, newly independent states would fall prey to the "disease" of communist influence. On a strategic level, Rostow and others warned that Soviet advances in peripheral areas like Indochina would eventually jeopardize the survival of American-inspired values in critical strategic areas like Japan. This was the alleged threat of "falling dominoes."
Both Washington and Moscow used violence to reconstruct the Third World. In the American case, the Vietnam War was the clearest example of this phenomenon. Throughout the 1960s policymakers generally believed that they were bringing a positive revolution to the impoverished villagers of Indochina. Containment of communism and industrial development promised to create peace and prosperity, according to American assumptions. In pursuit of this vision, Washington deployed extensive military force to bludgeon local resistance.
Installing the American version of revolution in Vietnam involved the repression of all other varieties of revolution, nationalist and communist. The United States found itself destroying traditional villages and killing innocent civilians as it attempted, in vain, to build a new society in its own image. This was the perversity of American-sponsored revolution in the Third World. Many of the earliest and most consistent opponents of these policies were people who, like George Kennan, criticized the revolutionary and idealistic strains in U.S. foreign policy.
Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America the United States frequently hindered the process of decolonization because nationalists—like Ho Chi Minh—refused to accept the American model of liberal capitalism. Ideological dogmatism, economic interest, and cultural condescension combined when Washington lent its support to imperial powers and local "strong men." There were the counterrevolutionary consequences of America's inherited revolutionary narrow-mindedness, magnified by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. U.S. conceptions of liberty and enterprise tragically set the most democratic nation against the cause of national independence.