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After the second world war, and after the full impact of what the Nazis had done became clear, it seems like international politics moved to the left: in the east and far-east, support for communist movements rapidly rose; in the west, Socialist, Labour, and Trade-Unionist parties saw a sudden surge in support. The largest swing in UK electoral history, for example, was to the Labour party in the 1945 general election.

The US doesn't seem to have experienced this. Instead, if anything, it lurched to the right.

The Nazis are and were demonised as much in the US as in any of the other 2nd world war allies. Why didn't they experience the same political shift away from that direction as most other involved countries did.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Mar 7 at 15:05

11 Answers 11

up vote 48 down vote accepted

It's probably too simplistic to say "the rest of the world jumped to the Left". That's not really the case. It's also pretty simplistic to say the U.S. "lurched to the right" - what does this mean in practical terms? The right wing/left wing paradigm is in of itself a simplistic paradigm that often obfuscates more than it illuminates. It also ignores the domestic political contexts in these nations that supposedly jumped to the left. I'm sure people had their own reasons for their voting intentions.

What we can say is that there are a couple of reasons why the Americans have traditionally favoured liberal capitalistic politics.

  1. Cultural: The Americans were already pretty capitalistic; this was embodied in their early history as a nation and the laissez-faire period of the late 1800s & their frontier culture.
  2. Strategic competition with Russia: The threat of the Soviet invasion of Western Europe would have represented a strategic imperative to refute the political ideology of socialism. This would also have been exacerbated by Mao's success in the Chinese civil war.
  3. Labour market forces: The United States has always been a capitalistic country and the more powerful commercial entities would have considered it in their interests to use the threat of communism to degrade the threat of militant unionism.
  4. Humans rights abuses: The abuses committed under Stalin and earlier during the Russian civil war would probably have been somewhat known to at least some in the American electorate.
  5. Consumerism: was a wild success in the the 50s period and would have presented an excellent ideological alternative to the austerity of socialism. It was in fact, superior. Simply judging by the results of the two systems, the American liberal capitalism was superior to the Russian socialist system.
  6. Economics: The massive mobilisation of American industry for WW2 created an industrial behemoth of the U.S. The Great Depression would be a fading memory by this time and the ideals of the American dream - individual prosperity created a new norm and new aspirations for the individual American.

In short there was not a single root cause for this but a number of existing and emerging factors that would have contributed to voter intentions. But did the United States really lurch to the right? What is "right" in this context? By what yardstick do we measure "rightness"? This is the problem with the right-wing left-wing paradigm - it doesn't explain a lot and tends to obfuscate more complicated political realities.

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Reasonably good. You might note how the distinction between the fiscal and social life-right splits complicates analysis, and differs from Europe (and perhaps Canada) to the United States. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 21 at 20:27
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Left-Right paradigm is awful. Economic systems are often distinct from political. Fascism and Communisms are extremely similar politically (and economically) in their statist bent (concentrating political power and economic power in the hands of the state). The US moved the farthest from those paradigms post-war continuing to build individual freedoms (both economically and politically) into its political system. – Stuart Allan Feb 22 at 15:53
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About point 4 - while undeniable now, were the abuses actually widely known during the period in question? Wiki (yes, I know, can't even be called a "source") seems to indicate that light was shed mostly after Stalins death, so at least a decade after WW2. – Ordous Feb 22 at 19:58
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It is unfair to say that Capitalism was substantially better than National Socialism when you consider where the two countries started and ended up. After WWI, Russia was a backwards agrarian society. National Socialism took hold and in 20 years they became a modern highly industrialized nation capable of single handedly holding out against the mightiest most advanced army in the world. United States at the start of WWI and WWII and AFTER those wars was already an industrial powerhouse. cont... – maple_shaft Feb 23 at 18:29
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...cont When you also consider that USSR and the rest of the worlds industrial centers were in ruins, only the US remained relatively unscathed. Consider that in less than 10 years from the end of the war, USSR was in direct competition with the US in terms of technology and the space race. Add to that the aggressive espionage and subversive cells that western powers constantly inflicted upon the USSR, there was a reason Stalin was paranoid, he was under constant personal attack. You can't argue with the results by comparison. – maple_shaft Feb 23 at 18:37

One reason was that America was the biggest winner of World War II. It started the war with about 40% of the world's industrial capacity (according to Paul Kennedy, the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers"), and ended with about "half" of the capacity of a war-torn world. Other countries that were on the winning side, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China, were worse off than before the war. The war weariness was most felt in Britain, where voters threw out war leader Churchill. Many people in Britain went "left" because they did not feel that the sacrifices were worth it, or that they had gotten their fair share of the spoils.

Returning American "GI" veterans were the most empowered men in the world. The GI Bill gave men from working class families the means to attend college, and later staff the managerial ranks of America's burgeoning industrial complex. Those that retained "blue" collars were still war heroes, and treated as such by unions, and managements. American workers had fewer grievances than those elsewhere, and were less likely to sympathize with "leftists."

In 1945, there were three basic political groups: liberal Democrats, conservative democrats, and (right-leaning) Republicans. Taken as a "body," the American public was quite conservative. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was admired for his "competence," but he was actually placed in power by a conservative Texan, John Nance Garner. After FDR tried to replace Garner as Vice-President with his leftist "soul mate," Henry Wallace in 1940, the Democratic Party balked in 1944 and insisted on the more conservative Harry Truman, who (in)famously said, "“If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.” After he became President, Truman allied with (West) Germany and started the Cold War against the Russians. This helped lead to the "villification of "left wingers" in the United States.

"The Nazis are and were demonised as much in the US" as elsewhere. That's true only up to a point. It is important to note that through the 1950s, some people in America advocated racial policies against African-Americans that were actually "milder" versions of Nazi racial policies. Some authorities believe that Naziism was partly inspired by the American eugenics movement of the 1920s.

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The GI bill seems like a set of pretty left-leaning ideas to me, and wasn't the top tax rate in the 90s right after WW2? – Wossname Feb 22 at 1:51
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@Wossname: According to (Republican) authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in "Generations," the top 90% tax rate was a fiscally conservative move to pay off the war debt, and the Gi Bill was the soldiers' reward for bringing about Americas (imperialistic) "Rendezvous With Destiny." history.stackexchange.com/questions/15374/… – Tom Au Feb 22 at 14:14
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I don't think that US won the WW II. In my opinion Stalin (and Communist party of USSR) won the war. Because they got rid off opposition in USSR and in all countries in eastern Europe. – Crowley Feb 22 at 14:44
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This explain why Czechoslovakia, Poland and other eastern republics leaned totally left. But it doesn't explain why France and Britain leaned left. – Crowley Feb 22 at 21:26
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Czechoslovakia, Poland and other eastern republics didn't "lean" left, they were invaded by the Soviet Union and not able to pursue free politics until the 90s. If the question is to make any sense at all we have to limit it to free Western Europe - not the Communist states and not the Fascist states. The US and the USSR won the war in Europe together as allies - which immediately ended once the armies met in Berlin. – pjc50 Feb 23 at 14:52

In occupied western Europe, underground communist parties took a large role in anti-nazi resistance, for which they were electorally rewarded. Not being occupied, the experience in the UK and the USA was very different. Experiences in eastern Europe, where nazi terror was replaced by stalinist oppression, was different yet.

Three days from now (on 25 February), the February strike will be exactly 75 years ago. This was one of the major events in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The strike was initiated by the underground Communist party, aiming to stop the racism against the Jews. solidarity with the Jews. Although it didn't last long and didn't save any Jews, it did cause major credit to the Communist party and their best-ever election result in the first post-war elections, where they had over 10% nationally and far higher than that in Amsterdam, the centre of the strike and other communist-led resistance. Their newspaper (De Waarheid, or Truth) was very briefly the largest newspaper in The Netherlands. The support dwindled fast when the communist party treated harshly anyone not following the line determined centrally (and from Moscow), including communists considered war resistance heroes. Not much support was left after the Communist Party supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary after the Hungarian revolution, when communist support in national elections fell to 2.4%. It didn't take any McCarthyism to severely damage the Party — the Dutch communists did it all to themselves¹.

Communists were very active in other elements of the resistance as well, in The Netherlands, France, and elsewhere.


¹The Dutch secret service did to its part in encouraging splits within the Communist party. The debate to what extent they contributed to the demise of the communist party remains up for debate.

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Compared to when?

If you look at the USA politically in 1946 vs 1939 you see a very different shift than if you were to compare 1946 to 1926.

The Great Depression and the resulting New deal did push the USA further "left" (if you can call it that).

The thing to notice is that in this case, there was a clear compelling reason to do so - 25% of Americans were out of work in various portions of the 30s. There were clear, compelling reasons in the American mainland which drove this "jut to the left."

Contrast this to post WWII. America by and large saw economy, political, and cultural aspects work in WWII and lead America to victory. While the factors you see are true, the average American in fall 1945 would have been far more likely to see and value the success of the American system - and see strength and value in leaving it untouched.

There just was not a compelling reason for the average American to be motivated to "push America left" as you are asking about.

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There were probably a lot of folks back then that didn't have access to health care, didn't have access to higher education, were working harder for lower wages compared to workers in other countries because of a weak labor movement, or otherwise ended up in difficult situations because of the relatively weak safety net. I think the working class and lower middle class have always had a reason to move left, yet the poor in the US often vote for Republicans. All good reasons to believe that there is something else going on than "no reason for change". – user8586 Feb 22 at 23:59

In order to discuss this sensibly, it's necessary to distinguish the social-democrat left from the actual Communist left. "Fabian" socialism as opposed to revolutionary Marxism. The former pursued economic redistribution, the establishment of public healthcare and education systems, and nationalisation of some industries while generally leaving private property alone and retaining elections. The latter didn't, and were often thoroughly infiltrated by actual Stalinists and KGB agents. Although not as thoroughly as Joe McCarthy would have you believe.

Another key point is that European countries became command economies (or at least heavily requisitioned economies) as soon as the war started. Non-state economic activity became very difficult due to lack of resources and manpower, while a huge state economy was built to produce war materiel and ration everything else.

Let's also not understate how much was destroyed, and how many people were killed, exiled, expropriated, wounded or seriously inconvenienced by the war. It was a war of indiscriminate destruction from the air. A significant fraction of Europe's remaining traditional hereditary aristocracy were killed, in some cases wiping out entire family lines.

The existing social and economic order was simply blown to pieces, a lot needed to be (re)built, and everyone was already mobilised. It's a short step from state-directed building of aircraft, hospitals and barracks to state-directed building of cars, hospitals and houses.

America suffered no such destruction of property, providing less of an opportunity to redistribute its replacement. Meanwhile the foundations for post-war technological industries were being built around the arms manufacturers, and the post-war space race.

There were a lot of public left/right confrontations in various countries in the 60s. Everything from the US civil rights movement to the soixante-huitards to the Greek internal conflict which collapsed into a military dictatorship. Italy could have gone either way (and the CIA were involved there, in Operation Gladio). Also de-colonialisation by France and the UK; arguably this is a shift to the "left".

It's also important to look at how pivotal individual figures were and how differently things could have gone if, say, JFK and MLK hadn't been assasinated. The US could have ended up not so far to the right.

But ultimately a lot of the US "rightism" was straightforward power politics of anti-communism, competing against the Soviet Union. This included sponsoring terrorism and coups in South America, the Vietnam War, and so on.

Edit: this is a huge question, really. How much of "Europe" are you counting? France+Benelux+West Germany+Scandinavia+Italy count as "left", I suppose, but what about military dictatorships in Spain+Portugal+Greece?

About bomb damage in the UK: while this only affected a small fraction of buildings, it was an omnipresent threat in any urban area. The British victory is seen in popular history as fundamentally collective - "pulling together", "blitz spirit", Dunkirk's "little ships", rationing, etc. (Slightly contradicted by talking about "the few" of the air superiority fighters and the aristocratic flavour of the RAF, though).

America lacks universal health care partly because of a persistent popular belieft that ill-health reflects immorality, while the UK set its up at a time (1944) when anyone could be injured by shrapnel at any time without it being a reflection on their character.

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Good answer; the only thing is: England was not damaged nearly as badly as the Continent, and yet it, too, leaned more to the left after the War. And on the Continent certain countries were less badly impacted that also leaned left, if I remember correctly. I do think the direct impact of the War has something to do with it, since England is now in some ways also pretty right-wing compared to the Continent; but there is more to it. The Frontier mentality mentioned earlier is important; but then again, why was America in some ways more leftist than Europe shortly before the War? The colonies? – Cerberus Feb 22 at 23:46
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"why was America in some ways more leftist than Europe shortly before the War" - in what way? – pjc50 Feb 23 at 9:55

Your question operates from a very black and white view of left/right, and your mistaken assumption is that the Nazis were of the political right.

The Nazis were Nationalist Socialists and often leaned left. Their fight against the Soviets weren't because they were opposed to Communism. Remember that Hitler allied with Stalin and then double crossed him so there wasn't a lot of ideology going on there.

"Liberal Facism" by Jonah Goldberg outlines in great detail how the Nazis had more in common with traditional leftism than American conservatism.

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Outlawing trade unions, banning strikes, and allying with big business has nothing to do with leaning left. – gerrit Feb 22 at 11:54
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The Nazis were fervently anti-Communist and specifically anti-Bolshevist. They saw Bolshevism as part of an international Jewish conspiracy. It was their weird racial ideology that trumped everything and makes it hard to classify in how we define right/left today. Still, the Nazi ideology was dominated by extremely far right aspects. – PeskyToaster Feb 22 at 15:30
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@gerrit -- independent trade-unions and strikes were also illegal in the Soviet Union. – Malvolio Feb 22 at 17:28
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@Malvolio I wouldn't personally describe Stalinist Soviet Union as left-wing either. I think the whole story of labelling historical regimes as left or right is not very fruitful. It's not one-dimensional at all. – gerrit Feb 22 at 17:28
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All these comments suppose the wrong-headed idea that "right" and "left" are useful labels for political systems in the real world. Very sad to see otherwise-intelligent people wasting their time this way. – Jeffiekins Feb 22 at 22:44

This is a great question, and I've decided to write my own answer since the existing ones fail to mention a few facts.

  1. Reason #1 should be J. Edgar Hoover. Even before Truman's creating the 'national security state', the FBI succeeded in infiltrating the communist party and most left-wing organizations. Out of each four communist party card-carrying members, three were FBI informants. The 'left' field was completely and utterly compromised.

  2. The unions, unlike their European counterparts, were averse to communist propaganda. Some union leaders used to be 'fellow travelers' in the 1930s but the purges, the Winter War, and the Molotow-Ribbentrop Pact quickly changed their minds (cf. the case of Walter Reuther who was instrumental in getting rid of pink colors in the UAW membership). The unions were quite influential, and members of the New Deal coalition.

  3. Harry Truman gathered various conservative, wealthy, East Coast-educated, Georgetown-dining gentlemen in the national security apparatus. This machine worked efficiently to protect itself and the American state from subversion, i.a. by allying with and indirectly controlling mainstream media outlets (see the Alsop brothers, for instance). It also expended much effort and money to subvert European communist parties, to set up 'stay behind' shadow state, to train law enforcement and special services there...

  4. Stalin had his hands full and naturally devoted more attention to the events in Europe.

  5. The United States quickly climbed out of shallow post-war economic depression and surged forward. Whatever rationing there was was quickly abolished. A full belly would not harbor treasonous thoughts.

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The main difference between the totalitarian states in the 1900s and the democracies was not at all in economic policy but in to what extent and to what detail the (federal) state was allowed to rule over citizens (private) lives by using force.

The bipolar left-right economical spectrum did not at all take authoritarian / personal liberty into account.

"Extreme left" and "extreme right" did not mean extremely much to the left or extremely much to the right. It meant "economically left But with extremely little personal freedom" and "economically right But with extremely little personal freedom".

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The share of government spending in GDP is mainly correlated with growth of the service sector and urbanization. In agrarian societies, people are independent and can live off the land. As countries develop people become more dependent on government.

In the US urbanization was a bit slower, hence, the slower spending growth.

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What does this have to do with "left/right" politics? – curiousdannii Feb 22 at 12:41
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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. - From Review – Pieter Geerkens Feb 22 at 13:19
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@PieterGeerkens (and at curious) But it does! Mustang contends that big government "left" politics boost the service sector which is tied to (and benefits) urban centers; the US, lagging in urbanization compared to the West European countries experiencing the left swing, therefore didn't have as much clientele to perform a left swing.-- But I doubt that it's historically correct that the US was less industrialized/urbanized than West Europe. – Peter A. Schneider Feb 22 at 14:00
    
@PeterA.Schneider In the US there was and still is large amount of "free land" and the density of population is far lower in the US compared to Europe. – Crowley Feb 22 at 16:21
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@Crowley The amount of "free land" or the overall population density is largely irrelevant to the discussion. The interesting question is what the proportion of urban vs. rural population was, as a first rough measure of how many people would (allegedly) profit from big gov. In 1950 for the US it's 64/100 urban (census.gov/population/censusdata/urpop0090.txt); in Germany 68/100 (geohive.com/earth/pop_urban2.aspx). That would support Mustang. – Peter A. Schneider Feb 22 at 22:23

I wasn't able to read all of the comments above - but am sure someone has mentioned the dichotomy between statism and anarchy/libertarianism. Global governments desired more control post-WWII (including the United States) but the people were oftentimes more inclined to give it in affluent Europe or nations undergoing an industrial revolution such as those in Central or South America.

Many in the U.S., at least identify with the idea of limited government more than their European counterparts - certainly in regards to economics. We've seen this play out significantly over the past 50 years.

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There was a lot of left in America during those years. I'm skipping some countries, but I'm sure you can read something about the left in America over here and here.

Edit: Question title changed, answer no more valid. Thanks for correcting!

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ooh you're getting downvoted for daring to include Latin America into America. – a20 Feb 25 at 11:18

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