World War II: the Rise of the Superpowers


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 origins. 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
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 History.
Issue 3, vol. 21, Sept 93: 26-32.
Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events, Conjectures,

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,
Morrison, Samuel Elliot. The Two-Ocean War. Boston, MA:
Little, Brown, 1963.
Overy, R.J. The Origins of the Second World War. New York:
Inc, 1987.
Ovyany Igor. The Origins of World War Two. Moscow: Novosti
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)
[ 03.html.] 1995
Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried. Against Stalin and Hitler.
Suffolk: Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), 1970. 
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
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
American History, Sept 93, vol 21. p. 528. 

10.<#11> Aga-Rossi, Elena. "Roosevelt's European Policy and
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
Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995)
[ 03.html.] 1995 

24.<#25> Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events,
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
Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995)
[ 03.html.] 1995

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