Rise Of The Super Powers Essay Research

Rise Of The Super Powers Essay, Research Paper 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,

Rise Of The Super Powers Essay, Research Paper

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- -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- -vis the Soviet Union, was

analogous to that of Latin America, vis- -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- -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. Overy R.J. The Origins of the Second World War (Longman: New

York) 1987 p.7 Overy pp. 88-89

2. Overy p .8

3. Ovsyany, Igor. The Origins of World War Two (Novosti Press

Agency: Moscow) 1989 pp. 31-34.

4. Overy p. 70

5. Overy p. 85

6. Overy p. 89

7. Overy p. 91

8. Aga-Rossi p. 81

9. Divine, Robert A. “The Cold War as History” Reviews in

American History, Sept 93, vol 21. p. 528.

10. Aga-Rossi, Elena. “Roosevelt’s European Policy and the

Origins of the Cold War” Telos Summer 93.

Issue 96 pp. 65-66

11. Aga-Rossi p. 66

12. Aga-Rossi p. 69

13. Aga-Rossi p. 72

14. Aga-Rossi p. 73

15. Aga-Rossi p. 77

16. Aga-Rossi p. 70

17. Divine p. 528

18. Aga-Rossi p. 80

19. Aga-Rossi p. 68

20. Aga-Rossi pp. 74-75

21. Aga-Rossi p. 79.

22. Aga-Rossi p. 83.

23. 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. Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events, Conjectures,

Structures (Pinter Publishers: London) 1989

p. 107.

25. 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. 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