Rise of the Superpowers (USA & USSR) from events prior to and during WWII

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 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