Cambridge Catalogue  
  • Help
Home > Catalogue > The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945–1990
The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945–1990
Google Book Search

Search this book


  • Page extent: 0 pages

Adobe eBook Reader

 (ISBN-13: 9780511192180 | ISBN-10: 0511192185)


Politics, Security, Economics, Culture, and Society

Dimensions of Transatlantic Relations

Detlef Junker

Translated by Sally E. Robertson


When historians attempt to describe and explain the significance of German-American relations in the second half of the twentieth century, they are forced to look at the entire century. This is because the relationship between the two states, societies, and cultures in the era of the Cold War was shaped by history in a twofold manner: by the objective consequences of American intervention in both world wars and, second, by the lessons learned from these historical experiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

   When we look at the entire century from an American perspective, we might venture to say that no country in the world has contributed as much to the ascent of the United States to superpower status and to the globalization of its interests as Germany, Europe’s central power.1 The United States had kept its distance from the Eurasian continent in the nineteenth century, particularly in terms of military engagement or alliance politics. It was the triple challenge posed by the German problem in World War I, World War II, and the Cold “World” War that finally established the United States as a military, economic, and cultural power on that continent.2

   Germany was America’s chief adversary in World War I, and the United States waged two wars against it: a military one in Europe and a cultural one against German-Americans at home. The American political and military elite viewed Germany as its most pressing enemy in World War II, even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After 1945, the American-Soviet conflict became the major structural principle of international relations, and the German question was to a large extent a dependent variable in the relationship between those two superpowers. Nonetheless, Germany remained America’s central problem in Europe. The power vacuum created in Europe by the unconditional surrender of the German Reich can be viewed as the most important cause of the emergence of Soviet-American antagonism after 1945. The establishment of NATO and the permanent stationing of American troops on German soil – both revolutions in American foreign policy – were direct results of the fact that the major victors of World War II could not agree on a system of domestic order for Germany or on its proper place in Europe. The Berlin crises of 1948–49 and 1958–62 were among the gravest Cold War threats to world peace. The second crisis, closely related to the Cuban Missile Crisis,3 and the erection of the Berlin Wall sharply exposed the dilemma of the Americans, who wanted neither to die for Berlin and the Germans in an atomic war nor to endanger their prestige and position as a European hegemonic power in Europe by withdrawing from West Berlin.

   National Socialism shadowed American foreign policy after 1945. The overriding goal of containing the Soviet Union was linked with the major lesson that a whole generation of American politicians had learned from the failure of democracy in the 1930s. Never again should a policy of appeasement be pursued toward dictators; there must be no second Munich, neither in Europe nor in Asia. This experience also gave rise to the domino theory, which was used in the United States during the Cold War as an all-purpose political weapon for justifying alliances, military interventions, and economic aid to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that ultimately drew the Americans into the Vietnam War.

   From a geostrategic perspective, containing the power of the German nation-state in the center of Europe had been a leitmotif of American policy in Europe since the age of imperialism, when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany and an imperial America outgrew their status as regional powers and became competing world powers. Yet, Germany did not become a problem for the United States until it threatened to rise to the level of hegemonic power or an oppressor of Europe. Unlike Germany’s European neighbors,4 the distant United States feared not the German nation-state created in 1871 but rather its potential as a rival world power. That is why the United States not only fought the German Empire and the Third Reich in world wars but also sought to contain and stabilize the Weimar Republic through economic integration, just as it attempted to contain and stabilize the Federal Republic through economic, military, and diplomatic integration beginning in 1949. European stability and German containment were among the chief strategic objectives of American foreign policy in the twentieth century, from Woodrow Wilson to George Bush.

   In the first half of the century, the Germans not only served twice as the enemy but also twice provided America with the paramount image of an enemy. The American civil religion – that unmistakable mixture of Christian republicanism and democratic faith5 – certainly facilitated the propagandistic transformation of the German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm II into the evil empire. It was this Manichaean pattern of distinguishing between good and evil with religious fervor that permitted the Wilson administration to win the battle for the soul of the American people, who were not eager to go to war in 1917.6 From 1937 to 1941, the general outline of this process was repeated: The major difference was that Nazi Germany, unlike Wilhelm’s empire, really was an evil empire.

   The Germans also played a central role in bringing about the positive aspect of this Manichaean pattern in American politics: the mission of bringing freedom and democracy to the world. In this respect, too, the “American century” is difficult to imagine without the Germans.7 It was the German challenge that forced President Wilson to broaden and globalize America’s mission beyond the passive idea of turning America into a new Jerusalem that would serve as a beacon for the world by virtue of its example to the active responsibility of raising to the American level those peoples who were less free, less civilized, and who had been left behind.8 Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy was the ideological climax of the declaration that he used to justify his country’s entry into the war against Germany in April 1917. Segments of the American political elite interpreted the failure of this mission in Germany during the period between the wars partly as a failure of their own country, which withdrew from Europe in its military and alliance policy after the Treaty of Versailles and remained in Europe only in an economic and cultural role.

   After 1945, therefore, the pacification and democratization of Germany (and Japan) were among the central goals of American foreign policy. Never before or since have the Americans expended so many resources to remake two foreign and occupied nations in their own political, social, and cultural image. Under the influence of the Cold War, the United States incorporated the western part of Germany into an Atlantic community – of security, values, production, consumption, information, leisure, travel, and entertainment – under American he-gemony. Berlin, which had been the headquarters of evil from 1933 to 1945, became not only a symbol of the Cold War and a divided world but also an outpost of freedom, the “city on the hill” on which the eyes of the world were focused.9 Nothing was a more obvious symbol of the victory of freedom over communism and dictatorship for the Americans than the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they reacted almost more enthusiastically than many surprised and disconcerted West Germans.

   At the outset of the new millennium, ten years after German reunification and the fall of the Soviet empire, these two fundamental experiences of Germany – as evil empire and as democratic ally in a transatlantic community – are united and yet separate in a curious mélange in the American collective consciousness and memory industry. It is not the Cold War but World War II that appears to be the axis of twentieth-century American identity. The morally ambiguous Cold War could easily have ended in nuclear catastrophe10 and was accompanied by a series of disturbingly opaque and inhuman wars on the periphery, most conspicuously the American debacle in Vietnam. By contrast, the war against the Axis powers is considered the most important event of the century and, at the same time, America’s great, noble, and just war.11 In this war, however, it was Nazism and not communism that was the paramount foe.

   World War II has special significance for America’s identity and its culture of remembrance, not only because it objectively marks a qualitative transition from major power to superpower or because, along with the American Civil War, it is particularly well suited for a patriotic and heroic view of history in the American mass media. More importantly, the Holocaust, embodying pure evil, overshadows all other crimes of the century in the American consciousness. Since the 1960s, historians, politicians, artists, and theologians in the United States and elsewhere have devoted increasing attention to the genocide committed against the Jews in Europe. The universalization, commercialization, trivialization, and functionalization of this discussion by the media and politicians have led to a debate on the “Americanization of the Holocaust.”12 This process is related to the growing importance of Holocaust remembrance for Jewish communities in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world;13 to the relationship of American Jews to Israel; to their fear of losing their identity without the Holocaust; and to the successful institutionalization and broadening of research on and remembrance of the Holocaust.14

   At the beginning of the new millennium it is difficult to predict what significance the Americanization of the Holocaust will have for the American image of Germany, the German image of the United States, and German-American relations in the coming decades. However, for historians, the shadow of the Holocaust cannot obscure the fundamental fact that, from not only a German but also an American perspective, German-American relations after 1945 have been a success story unprecedented in the history of international relations.15

   The solution of the German problem is among the greatest American foreign policy successes of the twentieth century. No one could have foreseen this success in 1945, when World War II ended and images of the liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau evoked an elemental revulsion in the United States. For almost forty years, Germany was an integral component of the dual containment policy of the United States in continental Europe: namely, containment of the Soviet and German threats. This policy went hand in hand with the desire to satisfy the French need for protection against Germany and the Soviet Union, while preventing France from ascending to the level of a hegemonic power capable of competing with the United States. The unification of Germany under Western conditions produced nearly the best possible Germany from the American perspective: a medium-sized democratic country in Europe with political influence and international economic significance. Germany lacks any vital conflicts of interest with the United States, is integrated into and contained by European and Atlantic institutions, and – given the Two-Plus-Four Treaty on reunification and its political culture – remains incapable of and uninterested in threatening its European neighbors militarily. Finally, despite the increasing Europeanization of German foreign policy, it remains the most important ally of the United States on the European continent.

   From the German perspective, no country in the world had as great an influence on the fate of the Germans in the twentieth century as the United States. Its military and political resistance twice foiled attempts by the German Reich to move beyond a semihegemonic position in Central Europe and become a world power among world powers. At the same time, these two “battles for world power” also represented the conflict between two opposing worldviews. America, as embodied by American President Woodrow Wilson, emerged in World War I as the primary ideological opponent of the antiliberal, authoritarian camp in Germany. Behind the German debate over Siegfrieden and unlimited submarine warfare were differing views concerning not only strategy and war objectives but also the internal structure of the German Reich.16 Images of the enemy established during World War I dominated the German image of America until well into World War II. Even in the years after 1939, two antagonistic ideologies confronted one another. The Americans saw National Socialism as the mortal enemy of democracy; Hitler and many Germans saw democracy as the mortal enemy of National Socialism. Held together by anti-Semitism as its overall ideological framework, Nazi propaganda characterized “Americanism” as a scourge of humanity equal to or even greater than Bolshevism, not least because the United States was becoming the most serious threat to the German domination of Europe as the war went on. Images of America generated by the Nazis built on traditional stereotypes, but beginning in 1938–9 they were increasingly dominated by the racist, anti-Semitic anti-Americanism of extreme right-wing Germans. Again, it was an American president who personified this ideological enmity toward America. According to Nazi propaganda, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the “main warmonger” and an agent of the world’s Jews and the international Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy, had driven the American people into war with the Third Reich.17 Occasionally, echoes of this radical, National Socialist criticism of America are still heard from right-wing anti-American elements in the Federal Republic today.18

   A democratic Germany twice turned to the dominant Western power, the United States, following the end of hostilities. American democratization policies after 1945 thus had their roots in the period between the wars, when the growing economic influence of the United States in Germany was accompanied by the first timorous attempts to create a transatlantic “alliance of ideas.”19

   It is largely because of the United States that the citizens of the “old” Federal Republic enjoyed freedom, democracy, prosperity, consumption, modernity, and mobility like no other generation of Germans before them. On an even more existential level, security or destruction – the physical survival of the Germans or their potential extermination in a nuclear holocaust – depended on the decisions of American presidents. Ultimately, all Germans owe their unity, on the one hand, to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and, on the other, to the determined and consistent support of the United States. It was the superpowers who divided and united Germany. Its European neighbors played a considerable role in both processes, but not a decisive one.

   The enormous influence of the United States on the security, politics, economics, culture, and society of the Federal Republic during the Cold War can essentially be attributed to seven factors. The first was the overwhelming political, military, economic, cultural, and technological status of the American superpower after 1945. Second, the foreign policy decision-making elite in the era of President Harry S. Truman from 1945 to 1952 possessed a determination and vision the likes of which the United States had not seen since the time of the Founding Fathers. This elite drew its lessons from history and was determined to do everything in its power to prevent the Germans from ever again posing a threat to the peace of Europe or the world. The third factor was the dramatic transition from the wartime coalition to the Cold War and anticommunism. Fourth, Americans’ images of the enemy in Europe gradually shifted from a focus on the Germans to a focus on the Russians.20 Closely related to this was the fifth factor, the fear Germans and Americans shared of Soviet aggression and expansion. Sixth, out of necessity, insight, enlightened self-interest, and a turning away from the past, the West Germans became willing to open themselves up to the West and to see the United States for the most part as the guarantor of their own security and prosperity. The seventh and final factor was the increasing willingness of the West Germans after the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, to submit to the inevitability of détente by paying the price for the Western alliance: the de facto division of Germany. From that point in time, the postponement of Germany’s reunification steadily became less of a burden on German-American relations.

   The influence of the American superpower on the western part of Germany was certainly greatest during the era of the Allied Control Council (1945–49) and under the reign of the Allied High Commission (1949–55). None-theless, after West Germany joined NATO (without ever becoming completely sovereign either politically or under international law) and after the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the four victorious powers collapsed in Geneva in 1955, Germany still depended on America’s hegemonic power, its nuclear umbrella, and the presence of American troops west of the Iron Curtain to guarantee its existence. The Federal Republic’s economic recovery and its integration into the world market were possible only in the context of a liberal, capitalist international economic system guaranteed by the economic weight of the United States and by American dominance of crucial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the tariff reduction rounds. American influence in other regions of the world guaranteed a supply of raw materials, particularly oil, to Europe and Germany. The West Germans’ internal turn toward the West, their eventual arrival in the West, and the incremental transformation of the values, mentality, society, and culture of the Federal Republic also cannot be explained without the considerable role of American influence.


In the beginning were Hitler and National Socialism, not Stalin and communism. German-American relations from 1947 on came under the spell of the ultimately global confrontation that formed political blocs in East and West. However, the overriding point of departure for American policy on Germany was the attempt of the German Reich to force the racist domination of National Socialism upon Europe. Never again, according to the great lesson of history, would the Germans be allowed to pose a threat to the security and welfare of Europe and the world. This starting point dominated America’s plans for Germany during World War II. And it influenced American occupation policy through 1949, the formation of the West German state that year, the actions of the High Commission, the release of Germany into a state of limited sovereignty, and its entrance into NATO in 1955. It continued to have an effect during the period of détente and arms control, was partially responsible for the American refusal to grant Germany access to nuclear weapons, and was a leitmotif in the integration of the German economy into a liberal international economic system. Even the American attempt to transform and democratize German society and culture was born of this principle. The legacy of the Third Reich was the raison d’être for inclusion of Germany within European and transatlantic organizations – indeed, even for American policy during German reunification and for the conditions of the Two-Plus-Four Treaty. One glimpse into the abyss of a Europe ruled by the National Socialists was enough to nourish the dominant motive for containing Germany through integration until 1990.

   Despite a shared anticommunism, despite the Atlantic community’s avowals of shared values that have become almost a ritual, and despite the unrelenting declarations of German gratitude for American aid, the fact that the German past refuses to die in America has irritated generations of German politicians, citizens, and visitors to America. Over the course of contemporary decision making, it has fostered mistrust and even downright crises in German-American relations.

   The legacy of the Third Reich can probably be seen most plainly in the forty-five years of American security policy toward Germany. “Program to Prevent Germany from Starting World War III”21 was the title of one version of the notorious plan by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., calling for the dismemberment, demilitarization, deindustrialization, and long-term occupation of Germany’s fragmented territory by its European neighbors to ensure that the country in the heart of Europe would be forever incapable of waging war. Although Morgenthau’s recommendations had been weakened and diluted by the time they found their way into the principles of American occupation policy issued on May 10, 1945 (JCS 1067/8),22 even Morgenthau’s most vehement domestic critics agreed with his ultimate goal. The German people had to be disarmed, denazified, and re-educated. National Socialist organizations had to be dissolved and the war criminals brought to justice. And the possibility of renewed German aggression had to be prevented for all time.

   The resolve to use all available means to prevent a repetition of the past remained a constant in American security policy during the decisive decade from 1945 to 1955. Beginning in 1946, however, it became increasingly clear that it was not possible to reach agreement with the Soviet Union over the principles of external disarmament (e.g., long-term military disarmament and future foreign trade policy) and internal disarmament (e.g., denazification, re-education, reparations, dismantling of industry, and decartelization of the German economy). Like Great Britain and France, the United States was not willing – even after the founding of the Federal Republic – to give up control over German security policy. Despite the developing Western integration of West Germany, a deep-seated skepticism about the German capacity for democracy and peace remained.23

   The Germans had an overwhelming need for and interest in shaking off the burden of the past on their long road back to sovereignty and “normality,” on the path to becoming a full member of the world community politically, economically, and morally. They would deal with their past in a very selective manner, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s.24 Nevertheless, the Allies in general and the United States in particular continued to draw their motivation for new actions from the lessons and experiences of the Third Reich.

   With the onset of the Cold War, securing the Western occupation zones and Western Europe against possible Soviet aggression increasingly became a major problem for American, British, and French military planners. Nevertheless, until the outbreak of the Korean War, the Truman administration found it impossible to get the American public used to the idea of West Germany contributing militarily to the defense of the West. In light of this deep-seated skepticism, the Americans considered it necessary to cast a safety net of controls and provisos over the West German state founded just four years after the demise of the Third Reich.25 Security policy, foreign policy, and foreign trade policy were taken out of German hands, and deep incursions into the domestic policies of the Federal Republic were considered necessary until such time as the Federal Republic proved itself to be a democratic and peaceful state.

   This test might have lasted some time had not the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 sent shock waves around the world and revolutionized American foreign and security policy. The effect of the Korean War on American policy and on the overall course of the Cold War can hardly be exaggerated. The only other events of comparable significance were the Chinese revolution, the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb, and the American assumption that the Soviets had developed long-range bombers and missiles capable of crossing the ocean and threatening the security of the continental United States. After the Korean War, the American superpower decided for the first time in its history that it needed more than just potential resources to wage war and promote its own interests. For the first time, the United States began to build a massive fighting force on land, at sea, and in the air. A military-industrial complex developed that put food on the table for millions of people and offered a simple, dualistic worldview on which to fall back. This complex was composed of military forces, government departments and bureaucracies, congressional representatives, senators and lobbyists, think tanks, universities, research and production facilities, intelligence services, nuclear strategists, and Kremlinologists, all producing constantly new images of an enemy, scenarios, missile gaps, and “windows of vulnerability,” both real and imagined.26

   This revolution in American foreign policy necessitated what had previously been unthinkable: the rearming of the (West) Germans. The West’s collective experience with the Third Reich and German militarism, the deep-seated fear of an armed Germany, collided with the fear of Soviet aggression. This collision produced incongruities that can only be explained by the German past: the desire for German weapons that could only be fired toward the East; the desire for German soldiers who would not have their own general staff or high command, but who would unleash into combat a power at least as great as that of the Nazi Wehrmacht in a war against the Soviet Union, the East bloc, and the Germans in the GDR;27 the desire to use German manpower without setting up a German army;28 and the desire to defend Europe against Germany while defending Germany and Europe against the Soviet Union.

   It speaks for the realism of the Federal Republic’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, that he immediately recognized the historic opportunity that this crisis presented to the occupied Federal Republic: The offer of German rearmament could be used to secure an end to the controls, a new sovereignty, and an equal status in the Western alliance. Adenauer and the German government only partially achieved their objective in the complicated negotiations with the Western Allies over Adenauer’s bargain (a German defense contribution and sovereignty in exchange for the annulment of the Occupation Statute and the dissolution of the Allied High Commission). The West Germans’ failure to gain full sovereignty in either a legal or political sense was due less to the new international constellation of the Cold War (defense of Western Europe and West Germany) than to the legacy of the past (defense against Germany). In the October 23, 1954, Paris Agreements, Adenauer pushed through the following laconic wording: “The Federal Republic shall accordingly [after termination of the occupation regime] have the full authority of a sovereign state over its internal and external affairs.”29 If this was intended as a statement of fact, it must be conceded that it was partly fiction and, if interpreted as wishful thinking, it was a promise that went unfulfilled until 1990. The Allies maintained their rights and responsibilities regarding Berlin and Germany as a whole, particularly the responsibility for future reunification and a future peace treaty. These provisos were safeguards and veto clauses of great political significance. Their application by the Western powers played a significant role, for example, in the second major Berlin crisis of 1958–62, during the political battle over the Moscow and Warsaw treaties and the entry of the two German states into the United Nations between 1970 and 1973, and during the reunification process in 1989–90. Although these developments transformed Western troops on German soil into allied protective forces, negotiations over their continued stationing in Germany made it clear that the Western powers were not giving up their original rights as occupying powers (occupatio bellica). Rather, they reserved their indirect right to station troops in Germany. Even after 1955, the ally could legally become a vanquished enemy again.30

   Just as significant in the long view was the system of arms control, arms limitation, and arms renunciation that permitted the controlled participation of the Federal Republic in the Western military alliance from the time it joined NATO and the Western European Union (WEU) in 1955 until reunification.31 Under no circumstances would an independent German army be permitted. The Americans were in agreement on that point with the British, French, and all of Germany’s other European neighbors. In addition, Adenauer was forced to “voluntarily” renounce on behalf of the Federal Republic the right to manufacture nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, and to agree to additional arms limitations. Adenauer did not, however, completely renounce all German participation in the control of nuclear weapons, because the nuclear arms race between the superpowers and the shifting nuclear strategies of the United States – from “massive retaliation” to “flexible response” – had existential consequences for the Federal Republic. Its geography as a front-line state in the Cold War posed an insoluble dilemma. The strategy of deterrence was based on nuclear weapons, so the failure of deterrence would mean the nuclear annihilation of German territory. For this reason, the Federal Republic attempted to participate in some way in the nuclear arena, either within a multilateral NATO nuclear force or through European options. This attempt failed due to French and British resistance, and the Federal Republic’s hope for nuclear participation collapsed when the common American and Soviet interest in a nuclear duopoly (with Great Britain as a junior partner) finally forced the Federal Republic to renounce the manufacture, possession, and use of nuclear weapons by putting its signature on the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969. This treaty primarily represented an attempt by the two superpowers to protect their dominance, prevent an uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear powers, and thereby keep the system of deterrence manageable. But it was also the experience with the German past that made the German signature so important for America and, especially, the Soviet Union.

   It was these fears fed by the past that in the end made continued military control of Germany a central component of international diplomacy concerning the external conditions of German reunification. Containing Germany through integration was again the overriding objective of American foreign policy. Indeed, it was the prerequisite for America’s approval of German unification. The country had to remain part of NATO and an overall Atlantic-European structure. On their own, the land-, air-, and sea-based armed forces of the Federal Republic are capable of neither offensive nor defensive action. Unified Germany is still bound by the rights and obligations arising from the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. Germany’s self-containment through renunciation of nuclear weapons was the factor that made German unity tolerable to its neighbors.32

   The Americans dictated the framework not only for the security of the West Germans (and West Europeans) but also for their prosperity. In this area, too, lessons from the past were the overriding motivation at first. As the Federal Republic attained the status of a major Western economic power in the early 1960s, however, this motivation disappeared. The social market economy (established with considerable assistance from the United States), its successful integration into the world economy, and the associated dependence of German foreign trade on open markets and raw materials convinced the world that there would be no revival of National Socialist economic policies.

   The primary objective of both American wartime planning and American economic policy after 1945 had been to use economic and security policy to prevent any possible recurrence of the Nazi regime’s protectionist, highly centralized, armament-oriented economy that had freed itself, through autarkic policies and bilateral barter trade, from dependency on the world economy and had ruthlessly exploited subjugated peoples. As early as the late 1930s, American politicians – especially Secretary of State Cordell Hull – considered the economic policy of the Third Reich to be one of the major causes of German aggression.33 In the 1940s, this perception of National Socialism would combine with a generally negative view of the world economy in the period between the wars. According to this widely held view, the system of international trade that had been arduously and incompletely rebuilt after World War I was devastated by the Great Depression. The international economic crisis undermined the world monetary system. Taking the position of “every man for himself,” virtually all countries resorted to protectionist and interventionist measures. The result was an atrophied and fragmented system of international trade that exacerbated worldwide misery and fostered the development of dictatorships and fascist political systems.

printer iconPrinter friendly version AddThis