(This is a return to an incomplete series about the political and economic ideas that made the United States what it is.)
The Second World War was a vast conflict that came close to involving the entire planet, directly or indirectly. For Americans at home, however, it was something that happened far away, removed from daily experience — aside from the one-time air attack by Japan in 1941, American cities and territory were never bombed, attacked, or invaded.
The single, real, and notable effect of WW2 on the United States was the launch of the economic model that would be described by the former military commander-in-chief in that conflict, Dwight David Eisenhower, in his farewell presidential speech of warning, as "the military-industrial complex."
After all, World War II had the novel effect of truly reviving the U.S. economy. The 1941 annual average unemployment of 13.3 percent, still lingering in the Great Depression's double digits despite the New Deal, dropped to 6.3 percent in 1942, the first full year of the war for the United States.
By 1943 it fell to 2.5 percent and every year until the war's end the jobless rate remained well below what nearly all economists deem "full employment." This was largely due to the incorporation of women, never before widely employed in wage-earning work, into the labor force at munitions and war-machine factories. This occurred as a sizable portion of men were drafted into military service.
After the war, things changed. A leap in unemployment occurred in the fall of 1945 and the open war turned covert.
The USSR's approach to occupation in eastern Europe, which involved a series of coups to install Joseph Stalin's version of Marxist-Leninist Communism, led to inevitable clashes with the Truman Administration. The USSR's acquisition of the atomic bomb in 1949, much earlier than expected, transformed the contention into what none other than George Orwell had already been describing as postwar powers "at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war.' "
The United States and its allies created the NATO military alliance in 1949 and the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 in response. Yet all this was in the grand stage of foreign affairs, about which the U.S. general public has always been profoundly uninterested, not to say ignorant. Most Americans barely care what happens in the next county, let alone other continents.
The actual real significance of the Cold War to Americans was how it justified maintaining a global U.S. military footprint — occupation of Germany aside — run from the Pentagon, the world's largest office building, on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River. Flashpoints such as the 1948–49 Berlin Blockade, allowed the U.S. military to demonstrate the peacetime value of massive air superiority.
During that crisis, the Soviets blocked off the railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. Food and other supplies were flown, in as many as 20 to eventually 1,500 flights a day, to the French, U.K., and U.S. sectors of the city over a period of a year.
The Cold War crystallized into a hot war in Korea during the 1950-1953 conflict between the United Nations and North Korea. UN intervention was possible because the Soviet Union was boycotting the international organization for recognizing Taiwan (Republic of China) as China, and not mainland Communist China. Thus the USSR veto was not used in the resolution to send troops under the UN banner.
After that, the pattern was set. The Soviets learned not to boycott the UN and to use their potential to use nuclear arms defensively as a deterrent to actual all-out war with the West, while agitating in a number of developing countries under Western influence.
The United States kept a ring of military bases around the world, from which they would mobilize displays of force in crises such as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 when the Wall was built, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Vietnam War, originally conceived as a short-term, limited intervention, led to a humiliating military defeat for the United States, the first in its history and — ultimately — the waning of the Cold War. That did not decrease the military significantly.
Here we are, a good 40 years since the end of the Cold War, maintaining a military designed to fight two-and-a-half world wars, by the Pentagon's own admission. Yet it is a military easily defeated by unconventional forces of Southeast Asians in jungles and robed Muslims in mountainous terrain.