rior process of superpowerdom It is often

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World War II: the process of superpowerdom
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
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 worlds 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
Roosevelts 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 industrys 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 1930s, 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 nations 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 nations 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
Roosevelts plans to achieve US world supremacy.
After the war, Roosevelt perceived that the way to dominate world
affairs was to reduce Europes 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 Europes 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 Churchills
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

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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 Frances
future in his hands, so that he could decide that countrys fate.It
seems inexcusable that Roosevelt desired to hold an allys 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
Unions 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.Stalins 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 Unions
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 Americas 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.
Stalins 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 Roosevelts 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.
Roosevelts 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, Roosevelts 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
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

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 Britains 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
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 worlds 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. Roosevelts 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, 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 Democracy,”
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. Bungay,
Suffolk: Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), 1970.
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) 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) 03.html. 1995

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