Rise of Superpowers After WWII


It is often wondered how the superpowers achieved their position 
of dominance. It seems that the maturing of the two superpowers, 
Russia and the United States, can be traced to World War II. To be a
superpower, a nation needs to have a strong economy, an overpowering
military, immense international political power and, related to this, 
a strong national ideology. It was this war, and its results, that 
caused each of these superpowers to experience such a preponderance of 
power. Before the war, both nations were fit to be described as great 
powers, but it would be erroneous to say that they were superpowers at 
that point. 
 To understand how the second World War impacted these nations so
greatly, we must examine the causes of the war. The United States
gained its strength in world affairs from its status as an economic
power. In the years before the war, America was the world's largest
producer. In the USSR at the same time, Stalin was implementing his
'five year plans' to modernise the Soviet economy. From these
situations, similar foreign policies resulted from widely divergent
 Roosevelt's isolationism emerged from the wide and prevalent 
domestic desire to remain neutral in any international conflicts. It 
commonly widely believed that Americans entered the first World War 
simply in order to save industry's capitalist investments in Europe. 
Whether this is the case or not, Roosevelt was forced to work with an 
inherently isolationist Congress, only expanding its horizons after 
the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He signed the Neutrality Act of 1935, 
making it illegal for the United States to ship arms to the 
belligerents of any conflict. The act also stated that belligerents 
could buy only non-armaments from the US, and even these were only to 
be bought with cash. 
 In contrast, Stalin was by necessity interested in European 
affairs, but only to the point of concern to the USSR. Russian 
foreign policy was fundamentally Leninist in its concern to keep the 
USSR out of war. Stalin wanted to consolidate Communist power and 
modernise the country's industry. The Soviet Union was committed to 
collective action for peace, as long as that commitment did not mean 
that the Soviet Union would take a brunt of a Nazi attack as a result. 
Examples of this can be seen in the Soviet Unions' attempts to achieve 
a mutual assistance treaty with Britain and France. These treaties, 
however, were designed more to create security for the West, as 
opposed to keeping all three signatories from harm. At the same 
time, Stalin was attempting to polarise both the Anglo-French, and the 
Axis powers against each other. The important result of this was the 
Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which partitioned Poland, and allowed 
Hitler to start the war. Another side-effect of his policy of playing 
both sides was that it caused incredible distrust towards the Soviets 
from the Western powers after 1940. This was due in part to the fact 
that Stalin made several demands for both influence in the 
Dardanelles, and for Bulgaria to be recognised as a Soviet dependant. 
 The seeds of superpowerdom lie here however, in the late 
thirties. R.J. Overy has written that "stability in Europe might have 
been achieved through the existence of powers so strong that they 
could impose their will on the whole of the international system, as 
has been the case since 1945.." At the time, there was no power in 
the world that could achieve such a feat. Britain and France were in 
imperial decline, and more concerned about colonial economics than the 
stability of Europe. Both imperial powers assumed that empire-building 
would necessarily be an inevitable feature of the world system. 
German aggression could have been stifled early had the imperial 
powers had acted in concert. The memories of World War One however, 
were too powerful, and the general public would not condone a military 
solution at that point. The aggression of Germany, and to a lesser 
extent that of Italy, can be explained by this decline of imperial 
power. They were simply attempting to fill the power vacuum in Europe 
that Britain and France unwittingly left. After the economic crisis 
of the 1930's, Britain and France lost much of their former 
international standing--as the world markets plummeted; so did their 
relative power. The two nations were determined to maintain their 
status as great powers however, without relying on the US or the USSR 
for support of any kind. They went to war only because further 
appeasement would have only served to remove from them their little 
remaining world standing and prestige. The creation of a 
non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany can be viewed 
as an example of imperial decline as well. Stalin explained the fact 
that he reached a rapprochement with Germany, and not one with Great Britain by stating that "the USSR and Germany had wanted to change the 
old equilibrium. England and France wanted to preserve it. Germany 
also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and this common 
desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basis
for the rapprochement with Germany." The common desire of many of 
the great European powers for a change in the world state system meant 
that either a massive war would have to be fought; or that one of the 
great powers would need to attempt to make the leap to superpower 
status without reaping the advantages such a conflict could give to 
the power making the attempt. Such benefits as wartime economic 
gains, vastly increased internal markets from conquered territory, and 
increased access to resources and the means of industrial production 
would help fuel any nation's drive for superpowerdom. 
 One of two ways war could have been avoided was for the United 
States or Russia to have taken powerful and vigorous action against 
Germany in 1939. Robert A. Divine, holds that "superpowerdom gives a 
nation the framework by which a nation is able to extend globally the 
reach of its power and influence." This can be seen especially as 
the ability to make other nations (especially in the Third World) act 
in ways that the superpower prefers, even if this is not in the weaker 
nation's self interest. The question must then be raised, were the 
United States and Russia superpowers even then, could coercive, 
unilateral actions taken by them have had such significant 
ramifications for the international order? It must be concluded that, 
while they were not yet superpowers, they certainly were great powers, 
with the incredible amount of influence that accompanies such status. 
 Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union possessed the 
international framework necessary to be a super power at this time. 
It is likely that frameworks similar to Nato or the Warsaw Pact could 
have been developed, but such infrastructures would have necessarily 
been on a much smaller scale, and without influence as the proposed 
Anglo-American (English speaking world) pact was. At this time, 
neither the United States nor Russia had developed the overwhelming 
advantages that they possessed at the end of the war. There are 
several factors that allowed them to become superpowers: a
preponderance of military force, growing economies, and the creation 
of ideology-backed blocs of power. 
 The United States, it seems, did not become a superpower by 
accident. Indeed, Roosevelt had a definite European policy that was 
designed from the start to secure a leading role for the United 
States. The US non-policy which ignored Eastern Europe in the late 
thirties and forties, while strongly supported domestically, was 
another means to Roosevelt's plans to achieve US world supremacy. 
After the war, Roosevelt perceived that the way to dominate world
affairs was to reduce Europe's international role (vis-à-vis the 
United States, as the safest way of preventing future world conflict), 
the creation of a permanent superpower rivalry with the USSR to ensure 
world stability. Roosevelt sought to reduce Europe's geopolitical 
role by ensuring the fragmentation of the continent into small, 
relatively powerless, and ethnically homogenous states. When viewed 
in light of these goals Roosevelt appears very similar to Stalin who, 
in Churchill's words, "Wanted a Europe composed of little states, 
disjointed, separate, and weak." Roosevelt was certain that World 
War Two would destroy continental Europe as a military and economic 
force, removing Germany and France from the stage of world powers. 
This would leave the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR as the 
last remaining European world powers.
 In order to make it nearly impossible for France to reclaim her 
former world position, Roosevelt objected to De Gaul taking power 
immediately after the war. Roosevelt defended the Allies "right [to] 
hold the political situation in trust for the French people." He 
presented General Eisenhower control of France and Italy for up to a 
year, in order to "restore civil order." As British foreign minister 
Anthony Eden stated, "... Roosevelt wanted to hold the strings of 
France's future in his hands, so that he could decide that country's 
fate." It seems inexcusable that Roosevelt desired to hold an ally's 
nation in trust, comparable to Italy, who was a belligerent. It could 
be argued, however that they were taking the reigns of power, not from 
the resistance, but from the hands of the Vichy French.
 It might be asked why Roosevelt did not plot the fall of the 
British Empire as well. A cynical answer to this is that Roosevelt 
understood that the United States was not powerful enough to check the 
Soviet Union's power in Europe by itself. It made sense that because 
the United States and Britain are cultural cousins, the most 
commodious solution would be to continue the tradition of 
friendliness, set out in the Atlantic Charter earlier. As far as 
economic or military competition, Roosevelt knew that if he could open 
the British Empire to free trade it would not be able to effectively 
compete with the United States. This is because an imperial paradigm 
allows one to sell goods in a projectionist manner, finding markets 
within the Empire. This allows a nation to have restrictive tariffs 
on imports, which precludes foreign competition. A nation, that is 
primarily concerned with finding markets on the other hand, is in a 
much better position for global economic expansion, as it is in its 
interest to pursue free trade. 
 The more generous, and likely the correct interpretation is that
Roosevelt originally planned to have a system of three superpowers,
including only the US, the UK, and the USSR. This was modified from 
the original position which was formed before the USSR joined the 
allies, that held for Great Britain to take a primary role in Europe, 
and the United States to act as a custodial in Asia. Later, after it 
was seen that either the Germans or the Russians would dominate 
Eastern Europe, the plan was forced to change. The plan shifted from 
one where the US and Great Britain would keep order in Europe, to one 
where Great Britain and the USSR would keep order in Europe as local 
superpowers, and the US would act as an impartial, world wide 
mediator. Roosevelt hoped for the creation of an Anglo-American-Russo 
world police force.
 However, Roosevelt, underestimated the power of the Russian 
ideology. He believed that the Russians would back away from communism 
for the sake of greater stability and union with the West. Roosevelt 
saw the Soviet Union as a country like any other, except for her 
preoccupation with security (the safety corridor in Eastern Europe 
that Stalin insisted on), but he thought that that this could be 
explained by the cultural and historical background of Russia. It was 
not thought unreasonable to request a barrier of satellite states to 
provide a sense of security, given that Russia and the USSR had been 
invaded at least four times since 1904. It was felt that granting the 
Soviet Union some territory in Eastern and Central Europe would 
satisfy their political desires for territory. It was only after 
experiencing post World War II Soviet expansion, that the Soviet quest 
for territory was seen to be inherently unlimited. Roosevelt felt 
that the position in Eastern Europe, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, was 
analogous to that of Latin America, vis-à-vis the United States. He 
felt that there should be definite spheres of influence, as long as it 
was clear that the Soviet Union was not to interfere with the 
governments of the affected nations. The reason that Roosevelt did 
not object to a large portion of Eastern Europe coming under the 
totalitarian control of the Soviet Union was that he believed the 
weakness in the Soviet economy caused by the war would require Stalin 
to seek Western aid, and open the Russians to Western influence. 
Many historians feel that Roosevelt was simply naive to believe that 
the Soviet Union would act in such a way. Arthur Schlesinger saw the
geopolitical and ideological differences between the United States and
the Soviet Union. He stressed however, the ideological differences as
being most important. "The two nations were constructed on opposite 
and profoundly antagonistic principles. They were divided by the most
significant and fundamental disagreements over human rights, 
individual liberties, cultural freedom, the role of civil society, the 
direction of history, and the destiny of man." Stalin's views 
regarding the possibility of rapprochement between the USSR and the 
West were similar. He thought that the Russian Revolution created two 
antipodal camps: Anglo-America and Soviet Russia. Stalin felt that 
the best way to ensure the continuation of communist world revolution 
was to continually annex the countries bordering the Soviet Union, 
instead of attempting to foster revolution in the more advanced 
industrial societies. This is the underlying reason behind the 
Soviet Union's annexation of much of Eastern Europe, and the 
subjugation of the rest. 
 The creation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe did not come 
as a total surprise. Roosevelt thought that America's position after 
the war, vis-à-vis the rest of the world, would put him in a very good 
position to impose his view of the post-war world order. The Joint 
Chiefs of Staff however, predicted that after the German defeat, the 
Russians would be able to impose whatever territorial settlement they 
wanted in Central Europe and the Balkans.
 World War II caused the USSR to rapidly evolve from a military 
farce, to a military superpower. In 1940 it was hoped that if the 
Soviet Union was attacked, that they could hold off the Germans long 
enough for the West to help fight them off with reinforcements. In 
1945 the Soviet Army was marching triumphantly through Berlin. Was 
this planned by Stalin in the same way that Roosevelt seems to have 
planned to achieve world supremacy? The answer to this question must 
be a somewhat ambivalent "no." While Stalin desired to see Russian 
dominance in Europe and Asia if possible, he did not have a systematic 
plan to achieve it. Stalin was an opportunist, and a skilful one. He 
demanded that Britain and America recognise territory gained by the 
Soviet Union in pacts and treaties that it had signed with Germany, 
for instance. Stalin's main plan seemed to be to conquer all the 
territory that his armies could reach, and create to socialist states 
within it. From this it can be seen that one of the primary reasons 
for the superpower rivalry was Roosevelt's misunderstanding of the 
Soviet system. Roosevelt and his advisors thought that giving the 
Soviet Union control of Central and Eastern Europe, would result in 
the creation of states controlled somewhat similar to the way in which 
the United States controlled Cuba after the Platt Amendment. The 
State Department assumed that the USSR would simply control the 
foreign policy of the satellite nations, leaving the individual 
countries open to Western trade. This idea was alien to Soviet 
leaders. To be controlled by the Soviet Union at all was to become a 
socialist state; freedom to decide the domestic structure, or how to 
interact with the world markets was denied to such states. Stalin 
assumed that his form of control over these states would mean the 
complete Sovietization of their societies, and Roosevelt was blind to 
the internal logic of the Soviet system which in effect required this. 
 Roosevelt believed that the dissolution of Comintern in
1943, along with the defeat of Trotsky, meant that Stalin was looking 
to move the Soviet Union westward in its political alignment. While 
Stalin might have been primarily concerned with "socialism in one 
country," communist revolution was a "paramount, if deferred policy 
goal." Roosevelt's desire for a favourable post-war settlement appears 
to be naive at first glance. The post war plan that he had created 
was dependant upon the creation of an open market economy, and the
prevailing nature of the dollar. He was convinced that the Soviet 
Union would move westward and abandon its totalitarian political 
system along with its policy of closed and internal markets. When 
seen from such a perspective, Roosevelt's agreement to let the Soviet 
Union dominate half of Europe does not seem as ludicrous. His 
fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Soviet state can be 
forgiven, once it has been allowed that an apparently peaceful nature 
was apparent at the time, and that it had existed for a relatively 
short time. While the United States wanted to "eschew isolationism, 
and set and example of international co-operation in a world ripe for 
United States leadership," the Soviet Union was organising its ideals 
around the vision of a continuing struggle between two fundamentally 
antagonistic ideologies.
 "The decisive period of the century, so far as the eventual fate 
of democracy was concerned, came with the defeat of fascism in 1945 
and the American-sponsored conversion of Germany and Japan to 
democracy and a much greater degree of economic liberalism.." Such 
was the result of America attempting to spread its ideology to the 
rest of the world. The United States believed that the world at 
large, especially the Third World, would be attracted to the political 
views of the West if it could be shown that democracy and free trade 
provided the citizens of a nation with a higher standard of living. 
As United States' Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, "To the extent 
that we are able to manage our domestic affairs successfully, we shall 
win converts to our creed in every land." It has been seen that 
Roosevelt and his administration thought that this appeal for converts 
would extend into the Soviet sphere of influence, and even to the 
Kremlin itself. The American ideology of democracy is not complete 
without the accompanying necessity of open markets.
 America has tried to achieve an open world economy for over a 
century. From the attempts to keep the open door policy in China to 
Article VII of the Lend-Lease act, free trade has been seen as central 
to American security. The United States, in 1939, forced Great 
Britain to begin to move away from its imperial economic system. 
Cordell Hull, then Secretary of State, was extremely tough with Great 
Britain on this point. He used Article VII of the Lend-Lease, which 
demanded that Britain not create any more colonial economic systems 
after the war. Churchill fought this measure bitterly, realising that 
it would mean the effective end of the British Empire, as well as 
meaning that Great Britain would no longer be able to compete 
economically with the United States. However, Churchill did eventually 
agree to it, realising that without the help of the United States, he 
would lose much more than Great Britain's colonies. 
 American leadership of the international economy--thanks to the
institutions created at Bretton Woods in 1944, its strong backing for
European integration with the Marshall Plan in 1947 and support for 
the Schuman Plan thereafter. (both dependent in good measure on 
American power) created the economic, cultural, military, and 
political momentum that enabled liberal democracy to flourish in 
competition with Soviet communism. 
 It was the adoption of the Marshall Plan that allowed Western 
Europe to make its quick economic recovery from the ashes of World War 
II. The seeds of the massive expansion of the military-industrial 
complex of the early fifties are also to be found in the post war 
recovery. Feeling threatened by the massive amount of aid the United 
States was giving Western Europe, the Soviet Union responded with its 
form of economic aid to its satellite counties. This rivalry led to 
the Western fear of Soviet domination, and was one of the precursors 
to the arms-race of the Cold War.
 The foundation for the eventual rise of the Superpowers is 
clearly found in the years leading up to and during World War II. The 
possibility of the existence of superpowers arose from the imperial 
decline of Great Britain and France, and the power vacuum that this 
decline created in Europe. Germany and Italy tried to fill this hole 
while Britain and France were more concerned with their colonial 
empires. The United States and the Soviet Union ended the war with 
vast advantages in military strength. At the end of the war, the 
United States was in the singular position of having the world's 
largest and strongest economy. This allowed them to fill the power 
gap left in Europe by the declining imperial powers. 
 Does this, however, make them Superpowers? With the strong 
ideologies that they both possessed, and the ways in which they 
attempted to diffuse this ideology through out the world after the 
war, it seems that it would. The question of Europe having been 
settled for the most part, the two superpowers rushed to fill the 
power vacuum left by Japan in Asia. It is this, the global dimension 
of their political, military and economic presence that makes the 
United States and the USSR superpowers. It was the rapid expansion of 
the national and international structures of the Soviet Union and the 
United States during the war that allowed them to assume their roles 
as superpowers. 


Aga-Rossi, Elena. "Roosevelt's European Policy and the Origins of the
Cold War" Telos. Issue 96, Summer 93: pp.65-86.

Divine, Robert A. "The Cold War as History" Reviews in American 
Issue 3, vol. 21, Sept 93: 26-32.

Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events, Conjectures, Structures. 
London: Pinter Publishers, 1989 

Le Ferber, Walter. The American Age: US Foreign Policy at Home and
Abroad 170 to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1994.

Morrison, Samuel Elliot. The Two-Ocean War. Boston, MA: Atlantic
Little, Brown, 1963.

Overy, R.J. The Origins of the Second World War. New York: Longman
Inc, 1987.

Ovyany Igor. The Origins of World War Two. Moscow: Novosti Press
Agency Publishing House, 1989.

Smith, Tony. "The United States and the Global Struggle for 
in America's Mission: The United States and Democracy in the Twentieth
Century (New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995)
[http://epn.org/tcf/xxstru 03.html.] 1995

Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried. Against Stalin and Hitler. Bungay,
Suffolk: Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), 1970. 

End Notes

1.<#1> Overy R.J. The Origins of the Second World War (Longman: New
York) 1987 p.7 <#2> Overy pp. 88-89 
 2.<#3> Overy p .8 
 3.<#4> Ovsyany, Igor. The Origins of World War Two (Novosti Press
Agency: Moscow) 1989 pp. 31-34. 
 4.<#5> Overy p. 70 
 5.<#6> Overy p. 85 
 6.<#7> Overy p. 89 
 7.<#8> Overy p. 91 
 8.<#9> Aga-Rossi p. 81 
 9.<#10> Divine, Robert A. "The Cold War as History" Reviews in
American History, Sept 93, vol 21. p. 528. 
 10.<#11> Aga-Rossi, Elena. "Roosevelt's European Policy and the
Origins of the Cold War" Telos Summer 93.
 Issue 96 pp. 65-66 
 11.<#12> Aga-Rossi p. 66 
 12.<#13> Aga-Rossi p. 69 
 13.<#14> Aga-Rossi p. 72 
 14.<#15> Aga-Rossi p. 73 
 15.<#16> Aga-Rossi p. 77 
 16.<#17> Aga-Rossi p. 70 
 17.<#18> Divine p. 528 
 18.<#19> Aga-Rossi p. 80 
 19.<#20> Aga-Rossi p. 68 
 20.<#21> Aga-Rossi pp. 74-75 
 21.<#22> Aga-Rossi p. 79. 
 22.<#23> Aga-Rossi p. 83. 
 23.<#24> Tony Smith, "The United States and the Global Struggle for
Democracy," in America's Mission: The
 United States and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (New York:
Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995)
 [http://epn.org/tcf/xxstru 03.html.] 1995 
 24.<#25> Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events, Conjectures,
Structures (Pinter Publishers: London) 1989
 p. 107. 
 25.<#26> Le Ferber, Walter. The American Age: US Foreign Policy at
Home and Abroad 170 to the Present.
 (W.W. Norton Company: New York) 1994 p. 417-418. 
 26.<#27> Tony Smith, "The United States and the Global Struggle for
Democracy," in America's Mission: The
 United States and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (New York:
Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995)
 [http://epn.org/tcf/xxstru 03.html.] 1995


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