19

I understand that the USA funded the war effort against the Axis, although the Allies in Europe had to pay for this help in one way or another.

It's fascinating to see how not that long ago (roughly 70 years) events unfolded to leave us in the state the world is in now.

In 1941, Life magazine editor Henry Luce predicted that the 20th century would be the "American" century, at a time when World War II was in progress, and America was profiting from the resulting trade (and as we now know, was about to join it). Was it World War II, or some other event(s) that caused the rise of the USA to being a superpower today?

Superpower is defined as a very powerful and influential nation.

  • 4
    Define what you mean by "superpower", please. – John Saunders Apr 12 '14 at 22:20
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    Superpower, a state with the ability to influence events and project power on a worldwide scale. That's the definition I'm used to, and USA fits (past and present), USSR did, and no other nation really does. – congusbongus Apr 15 '14 at 0:54
  • Seems subjective; how will you select an authoritative answer? – Mark C. Wallace Dec 2 at 22:27
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    This appears to be entirely answerable by reference to the theoretical schema it contains and/or is an undergraduate essay prompt designed to allow free argument while displaying content learnt in a topical course. – Samuel Russell Dec 3 at 7:06
  • @Samuel Russell Agreed. VTC as too trivial. – John Dee Dec 10 at 0:21
51

The question I might have asked is, "Is the U.S. a Superpower today because of World War ONE?" And that's the question I'll answer.

In 1914, the U.S. probably was not the strongest country in the world (perhaps third or fourth, no weaker than fifth). By 1918, the U.S. was the strongest country in the world, with Germany, Britain, France, and Russia having knocked themselves out of contention. The U.S. fought in the war, but entered when it was about two thirds over, meaning that it was spared most of the damage. The only comparable event in U.S. history was "1991," with a victory in the Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rival superpower.

During the 1920s, the U.S. controlled something like 50 percent of the world's gold reserves, a result of the trade and money flows to the U.S. during and after World War I.

It's true that the U.S. emerged from World War II with something like 50 percent of the world's industrial capacity, versus 40 percent before World War II, according to Paul Kennedy in "Imperial Overstretch." But the stage had been set during and after World War I.

  • 7
    Professor Tom Au, it was a most marvelous hijacking of a question I have ever seen. Hats off. – Mindwin Apr 12 '14 at 14:40
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    @Mindwin: That would be professor TUNG Au (my father). Many people confuse World Wars I and II. In this case, the OP didn't realize that America's contribution in World War II was the consequence and not the cause of (previous) superpower status. There was a relationship, just not the one the OP envisioned. – Tom Au Apr 12 '14 at 14:58
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    Not bad overall, but lacking in two points. One, the U.S. were "spared most of the damage" of both world wars by simple expedient of being the one major participant not having to fight over own territory, i.e. zero damage to its own infrastructure (aside from Pearl Harbor). And two, I think your answer is a bit short on one major subject: The combination of plentyfull aircraft carriers and oversea bases (most of which as a direct result of WWII), giving the USA an unrivalled capability of force projection. And only after WWII did the US show a decided interest in being a superpower. – DevSolar Apr 14 '14 at 6:42
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    @TomAu, If the US was a super power at the end of WWI why did the allies largely ignore Wilson plea's for leniency for Germany at the Paris Peace talks? If population advantage in 1918 made it a defacto super power, why isn't India today with it's 4x the population of the United States the defacto super power? WWI was not a game changer for the US, by 1919 the US army was disbanded and it was back to business as usual. The US economy never even got on a war footing in WWI. The US purchased alsmost all it's weapons from European powers for that war.. (Artilery, Tanks, Airplanes ) – JMS Dec 3 at 0:09
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    @TomAu: And that's exactly the point, isn't it? The US entered into WWII as a minor military power (!!), and came out as one out of only two superpowers. Which somewhat undermines your argument that it was all about WWI. The first war did set up what was yet to come, but it was the second war that really shook things up. (Removing, among others, Britain as the #1 sea power by simple expedient of Britain being broke and indebted to the USA.) – DevSolar Dec 3 at 7:28
2

It's hard to not include possibly biased views or controversial arguments when answering such a question. But considering the vague nature of the question, there will be no definite answer anyhow. Apart from the fact that one can not give a strict definition of the term "superpower", there is no single chain of causalities between a global event like WWII and a particular development in the subsequent years that lead to the state of the world as we know it.

Thus, I'd only like to point out certain events of WWII that - as far as I can judge this - directly contributed to the role of the US as a military superpower:

  • Operation Alsos contributed to the Manhattan project, eventually leading to the end of WWII
  • Operation Paperclip brought the scientists into the US who can probably be considered as being the driving force for winning the Space Race against the Soviet Union
  • Progresses in the development of Stealth Aircraft technology may at least partially be considered as results of capturing the Horton Fighter Bomber

Of course, the above mentioned points do not take into account other ((socio-)economical, geographical and general political) aspects that have been mentioned in other answers. But still, these points should be considered retrospectively.

However, the border may be "blurred". In this sense, one could say that winning WWII was what made the US a superpower. And regardless of that, saying that anyone "profited" from WWII leaves an uncanny feeling...

  • It is hard to think of a way the US could lose WWII without remaining a superpower. It is too remote for any Axis power to materially damage. And its industrial and financial might was second to none. – Oldcat Apr 15 '14 at 23:09
  • @Oldcat Sure... but between "winning" and "losing" there's still a "not being involved". Again, the question (and thus, the answer) is speculative, and every aspect that is mentioned here can only illuminate a tiny bit of the whole story. – Marco13 Apr 15 '14 at 23:21
  • You are pointing the capture and the intelligence on German realisations to a far more important situation that they wer ein reality. The achievements in nuclear as well as aeronautic and stealth technology of German were not that much important compared to the state of theory in the world at the same time. However, years after, the USA and some other countries were able to transform this theory in practice with their achievements in other fields such as electronics – totalMongot Jun 23 at 20:30
  • @totalMongot I didn't quantify any importance, just mentioned things that had not been mentioned before, and certainly contributed to certain developments. And as for things like nuclear weapons, the importance of finishing the bomb a few days earlier than the enemy cannot be quantified anyhow. However, we won't be able to unfold the Hypothetical Axis Victory here. – Marco13 Jun 23 at 23:16
  • Sorry, I thought you were explaining in general and not pointing some specific points – totalMongot Jun 25 at 19:27
1

No, I think that the USA would have been a very powerful nation if the war had not happened because the factors that caused America being a superpower would have existed whether or not the war did. These factors could be its large population and landmass (US's landmass is far larger than Britain's, France's and Germany's combined). In addition, it was industrializing with this large landmass and population (unlike China which had both population and landmass but no industrialization).

You could also consider some more controversial factors such as a large intelligent Jewish population, slavery and cheap immigrant labour to produce cheaper goods and food, a less class-based economy for more efficiency and patriotic spirit that might cause Americans to work longer hours). However, some may disagree if these are factors. There are also many other factors that could be considered, which would still exist if world war two had never happened.

The USA would have these factors irrelevant of the war so would be a superpower irrelevant of the war. However, WW2 definitely helped them achieve their 'superpowership' faster by allowing them to sell weapons and profit from the war.

However, if you define a superpower as the most powerful nation (power as in military and economy and influence), then maybe Russia would have become more powerful nation than the US if WW2 did not happen, so the US would not be a superpower as it was not a powerful nation.

I think the USA would definitely still be a powerful nation if WW2 had not happened.

  • 3
    If I had some more rep on this site, I would downvote this answer hard. All the factors listed cannot be assigned as causes. too vague. Several other countries have all that, and are not that powerful. Also, this answer is racist. – Mindwin Apr 12 '14 at 14:43
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    If it was all about land mass then both China and Russia would have been far ahead as nations, but they were not. – Snicolas Apr 13 '14 at 13:50
  • He mentions several reasons, not just land size. And China and Russia have been major powers for thousands of years in the former case and hundreds of years in the latter. – Oldcat Apr 15 '14 at 23:07
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    Snicolas, I did mention several factors with 'and' which means they all have to be true. Mindwin, it is a fact that Ashkenazi Jews have a higher than average IQ. Racism is making value judgements, not factual claims (if I had said 'the superior Jewish race' or the 'evil spanish', this would be racist). I'm sorry if I came across as racist. In addition, if these causes are 'vague' then how come you have made a reductio argument of nations with the factors but not being powerful (a strong argument I think). – user2850249 Apr 17 '14 at 17:52
  • +1 because you got it mostly right.. but what's the deal with "large intelligent Jewish population,"? America's Jewish population hovers around 2%. It's a little disconcerting to recognize 2% of the population as the first national resource in making America a Super power. I will give you the benefit of the doubt though and +1 you. – JMS Dec 3 at 0:00
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WW2 was clearly a factor in putting the USA in the position of superpower.

Military superpower: In 1939, the USA had a weaker, in number, army than Romania. They had a powerful fleet , however, and aviation was OK: reliable airplanes, with useful performances. In 1945, they are first in aviation, navy, and second in land army after the Soviet Union.

Economic and industrial: In the meantime, a powerful industry has been put to its maximal production rate, putting many women to work. Thus, the US enhanced their workforce. Economical power is vastly supported by the financial edge, with gold reserves. They managed well this power when they achieve to put into service the Bretton Wood system.

Political power: Multiple and reliable allies in Europe, even if they had some trouble with France. Communist parties failed to be an efficient counterpower in most european countries. Strong alliances in South America. Good partners in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Israel a few decades later.

Cultural power: From Captain America to movies.

Food power: Important thing. The Marshall plan was for a great part about feeding the Europeans, and America achieves to do that. They sold a lot of food, seeds and fertilizer.

However all this power was a little hampered by the vigorous fights in Asia: China, Korea and later Vietnam. USA lost there a lot of bases, and a lot of cultural power fled to non governemental forces (like the hippie movement), thus levering down the American edge in the cultural influence.

  • You are missing a point there: battle readiness is not directly linked to military power, especially for a country like the USA, which has wo oceans between itself and wars. For the Korean war, we are already 8 years (1.5 * WW2 length) after WW2, so you might understand why the military power of 1945 was not entirely sustained. Notably, the political power gained in Japan pushed the USA to reduce their forces there. Later, they were able to reinforce. – totalMongot Dec 3 at 19:06
  • Another point: the P 51 were only there at the start of the war, and I am wondering if they were not under south korean flag ? About the tanks, the Pershing was clearly not a "refurbished tank" And about navy, is Missouri not enough for you to blockade, land troops (Incheon) and bomb North Korea? :) – totalMongot Dec 3 at 19:07
  • @totalMongol, I'm not talking about battle readiness which is typically a term applied to existing divisions, army corps, ships or planes. I'm talking about non existent capabilities. The US military contracted by an order of magnitude between 1945, and June 30, 1947. From 12 million to 1.5 million. Basically the US went back to it's pre WWII numbers. If it wasn't a Super power before WWII it clearly wasn't militarily better off in 1949. And again we are talking about the beginning of the Korean War.. Clearly Korea was a wake-up call. – JMS Dec 3 at 19:54
  • @totalMongol, America few the P-51 Mustang through 1953. The Korean war ended July 1953. The USAF few propeller Mustangs against Soviet Mig 15 jets until the F-86 Sabre's replaced them. 3 years!! And yes the first three Pershings tanks rushed to Korea from Japan were salvage jobs. Lost after braking down because their fan belts were improvised. The US military had ZERO medium tanks in Korea at the onset of the war only the light M24 Chaffee's which were outmatched by the North Korean T-34s medium tanks. This forced the US to salvage abandoned Sherman's from WWII Pacific battle fields. – JMS Dec 3 at 20:19
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Question #1: Is the USA a superpower today because of WW2?

It's really an urban legend that wars are good for the economy. It's formally called the "Broken Window Fallacy" and was first written about in 1850 by French economist and author Frédéric Bastiat.

The broken window fallacy is a parable that is sometimes used to illustrate the problem with the notion that going to war is good for a nation's economy. Its wider message is that an event that seems to be beneficial for those immediately involved can have negative economic consequences for many others.

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Bastiat compares wars to a child breaking his father's window and the towns people deciding that the child has done the town a service because the father will pay for the windows to be replaced and all that money will jump start the local economy. But what this fallacy fails to account for is the opportunity cost of necessitating such spending.

Bastiat points out that further analysis exposes the fallacy. By forcing his father to pay for a window, the boy has reduced his father's disposable income. His father will not be able to purchase new shoes or some other luxury good. Thus, the broken window might help the glazier, but at the same time, it robs other industries and reduces the amount spent on other goods.

Economically wars cost money they don't make money, and while massive government borrowing, spending does have some short term benefits it's not the kind of investment or growth which is sustainable. When the government invests in industry in order to build war materials, that doesn't translate necessarily into commodities the commercial economy finds useful. It also comes at the expense of the commercial economy's growth which is frozen or reduced, really the antithesis of what the question proposes. Yes some of investment will help the post war economy, but that's the exception not the rule. Any such benefit is secondary to it's original purpose which is War production. Thus any such benefit to the post war economy is coincidental. Coincidences don't make for efficient long term economic growth; not when they require incurring such massive debt as come with war.

Yes there are short term benefits to the economy during war. Unemployment goes down, increased government spending, and some infrastructure investment. There are also significant disadvantages.

  • Research declines
  • Consumer consumption declines as a percentage of GDP
  • Commercial products disappear from the market altogether
  • infrastructure built is for war production and not for commercial production, some of it is thus not useful
  • National Debt increases
  • Taxes increase
  • Millions of productive workers withdrawn from the economy to fight
  • Inflation increases

Beyond the short term the economy is better off if that investment was put into commercial infrastructure, or research. These pursuits create the same short term economic benefits much more efficiently (inexpensively) while having a greater benefit in the long term.

Think of it this way, if a country borrows a billion dollars to produce fighters, bombers, tanks etc the economy benefits from producing those items but that’s it. If the government borrows a billion dollars to build bridges, roads, or utilities plants the economy gets the same short term benefit from job creation but then gets the substantial additional benefit of using those items for the next six or seven decades. All those war material are of little or no use to the economy after they are produced and the war concludes.

For those who consider this question in the affirmative how do they then explain the economic ascendancy of Germany, and Japan after the War? Much less Korea after the Korean War? Were these wars (WW2 & Korean War) of attrition which completely destroyed each of these countries economies to be considered to be a net economic positive for them too? If so then is it the hypothesis that winning and loosing of wars is irrelevant and really it's just the fighting of wars which yield economic growth regardless of outcome? Kind of preposterous.

Economic Consequences of War • World War II was financed through debt and higher taxes, by the end of the war, U.S. gross debt was over 120% of GDP and tax revenue increased more than three times to over 20% of GDP. Although GDP growth skyrocketed to over 17% in 1942, both consumption and investment experienced a substantial contraction. One of the key causes was government control of raw resources and materials. Trend lines taken from before the war and dating from 1933 onwards clearly indicate that for investment, consumption, and GDP growth there was no increase in the trend lines after the war had finished. While unemployment was virtually eliminated, recovery was well underway prior to the war, and the key counterfactual is whether similar spending on public works would have generated even more growth. The stock market initially dropped and once victory was foreseeable then rose to be higher than at the start of the war.

Militarily, after WWII the United States demobilized its military and returned to it's pre Dec 7th 1941 military sizes. In 1941 the United States had 1.8 million men under arms. In 1945 the United States had 12 million men under arms, By June 30, 1947 the US had 1.5 million. (see demobilization). That's almost a 90% reduction. The US really didn't maintain a military worthy of the name Super Power until the cold war after North Korea's invasion of south Korea in 1950.

The reason why the answer should be No. The United States was an economic super power decades before WWII. In terms of GDP the United States became the worlds largest economy in the 1920's. Yet, as a traditionally isolationist country for most of it's existence it did not maintain a army proportional to it's economy or population, it never had. As WWII broke out for instance the United States Army was smaller than Portugal's and slightly larger than Bulgaria, (see page v end of column 1) vastly inferior to Britain, France or Germany.

On the affirmative side of the argument yes WWII did demonstrate to the US policy makers that the United States could not sit idle on the sidelines. WWII coming so shortly after WWI, was used as proof the United States should maintain active foreign security treaties as well as a military capability to project power overseas something it had never done before. Only it did not come to these conclusions in 1945 at the end of WW2 but in the 1950s after North Korea invaded South Korea and the US felt it needed to respond but could barely do so. It’s vast ww2 army and navy having been almost entirely demobilized.

The benefit for the United States which catapulted it's economy beyond any peer was not WWII directly. It was the peace which came after the war. It was the rebuilding of Europe. Specifically it was the Marshal Plan which extended credit to Europe in exchange for Europe's business patronage. That and the other aid plans which came before and after which jump started Europe's recovery and relied on and expanded the American already robust pre-war economy. That's what fueled American economic growth across the 1950's and through the 1960s. Not the war spending but the benefits of having one of the only industrial economies still standing after WWII.

Question #2 I understand that the USA funded the war effort against the Axis, although the Allies in Europe had to pay for this help in one way or another.

Initially the United States was neutral in WWII, and it was illegal for Americans to transport weapons to either side. The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 were intended to keep the United States out of war. In Sept 1939, President Roosevelt decided to allow combatants to pay for American products, if they could pay in cash. No credit was extended, which was intended to aid the allies while maintaining US neutrality. Aid the allies because they had cash reserves and the Axis (Germany and Japan) were not as fortunate. That policy however was short lived. After the battle of France, and after Dunkirk(4 June 1940) the British had lost the bulk of their artillery and tanks and were in desperate need or resupply.

Lend Lease
On December 7, 1940, its Prime Minister Winston Churchill pressed President Roosevelt in a 15-page letter for American help.nb 2 Sympathetic to the British plight, but hampered by public opinion and the Neutrality Acts, which forbade arms sales on credit or the lending of money to belligerent nations, Roosevelt eventually came up with the idea of "lend–lease".

The aid the US pumped out was massive, Both Stalin and Marshal Zhukov said Russia could not have defeated Germany without US aid. US aid to Russia took many forms. Gold bullion in the Billions, oil, food, weapons, planes, trucks, train engines, cars.. you name it all in the tens of thousands as well as millions of tons of raw materials like rolled steel.

Lend-Lease: US Deliveries to the Soviet Union
In total, the U.S. deliveries to the USSR through Lend-Lease amounted to $11 billion in materials: over 400,000 jeeps and trucks; 12,000 armored vehicles (including 7,000 tanks, about 1,386[53] of which were M3 Lees and 4,102 M4 Shermans);[54] 11,400 aircraft (4,719 of which were Bell P-39 Airacobras)[55] and 1.75 million tons of food.[56]. Roughly 17.5 million tons of military equipment, vehicles, industrial supplies, and food were shipped from the Western Hemisphere to the USSR, 94% coming from the US. For comparison, a total of 22 million tons landed in Europe to supply American forces from January 1942 to May 1945. It has been estimated that American deliveries to the USSR through the Persian Corridor alone were sufficient, by US Army standards, to maintain sixty combat divisions in the line.

Still as you say, the Soviet's paid for all that material by putting it to good use against the Germans.

Lend Lease
Roosevelt, eager to ensure public consent for this controversial plan, explained to the public and the press that his plan was comparable to one neighbor's lending another a garden hose to put out a fire in his home. "What do I do in such a crisis?" the president asked at a press conference. "I don't say ... 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it' ... I don't want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over."[45] To which Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio), responded: "Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum—you certainly don't want the same gum back."[46]

In practice, very little was returned except for a few unarmed transport ships. Surplus military equipment was of no value in peacetime. The Lend-Lease agreements with 30 countries provided for repayment not in terms of money or returned goods, but in "joint action directed towards the creation of a liberalized international economic order in the postwar world." That is the U.S, would be "repaid" when the recipient fought the common enemy and joined the world trade and diplomatic agencies, such as the United Nations.[47]

Lend lease was worth billions to the allies.

          Country                    Value of material supplied 
                                     Lend Lease ( 1940 money)
          ---------------------------------------------------------------
          British Empire            $31.4 Billion
          Soviet Union              $11 Billion
          France                     $3 Billion
          China                      $2 Billion 


           Tons of War Materials Which Went to the Soviet Union

                  Year  Tons of Supplies
                  ----------------------
                  1941  360,778 
                  1942  2,453,097   
                  1943  4,794,545   
                  1944  6,217,622   
                  1945  3,673,819   

Repayment
Britain
Congress had not authorized the gift of supplies delivered after the cutoff date, so the U.S. charged for them, usually at a 90% discount. Large quantities of undelivered goods were in Britain or in transit when Lend-Lease terminated on September 2, 1945. Britain wished to retain some of this equipment in the immediate post war period. In 1946, the post-war Anglo-American loan further indebted Britain to the U.S. Lend-Lease items retained were sold to Britain at 10% of nominal value, giving an initial loan value of £1.075 billion for the Lend-Lease portion of the post-war loans. Payment was to be stretched out over 50 annual payments, starting in 1951 and with five years of deferred payments, at 2% interest.[84] The final payment of $83.3 million (£42.5 million), due on December 31, 2006 (repayment having been deferred in the allowed five years and during a sixth year not allowed), was made on December 29, 2006 (the last working day of the year). After this final payment Britain's Economic Secretary to the Treasury formally thanked the U.S. for its wartime support.

The Soviet Union
While repayment of the interest-free loans was required after the end of the war under the act, in practice the U.S. did not expect to be repaid by the USSR after the war. The U.S. received $2M in reverse Lend-Lease from the USSR. This was mostly in the form of landing, servicing, and refueling of transport aircraft; some industrial machinery and rare minerals were sent to the U.S. The U.S. asked for $1.3B at the cessation of hostilities to settle the debt, but was only offered $170M by the USSR. The dispute remained unresolved until 1972, when the U.S. accepted an offer from the USSR to repay $722M linked to grain shipments from the U.S., with the remainder being written off.

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Question #3
In 1941, Life magazine editor Henry Luce predicted that the 20th century would be the "American" century, at a time when World War II was in progress, and America was profiting from the resulting trade (and as we now know, was about to join it). Was it World War II, or some other event(s) that caused the rise of the USA to being a superpower today?

As previously discussed the US never made money during WWII at least not after Dec 1940, and even then it was a poultry amount compared to what it spent buttressing the allies for the last 5 years of the war. Money it would never recoup directly contrary to statements.

It was really some other event. WWII absolutely was a steroid shot to the American Economy which ramped up to produce all those war materials to defeat the Axis. But as I said, the American tax payer paid for most of that production both the production which went to it's own forces and also most of the production which went to it's allies. What really made the US economy into a "SUPER power" rather than just merely the worlds largest economy came after WWII.

After WWII the economies of Europe were shattered, their treasuries were depleted and their industrial and infrastructure were largely destroyed. The United States industrial base on the other hand was massive from all the war spending and production which had occurred, Their were no bombs dropped on the US in WWII as had effected Europe and Asia. The American problem was there were no global customers to purchase it's goods.

Harry Truman came up with the plan, only he was not popular in congress and named it after his highly respected Secretary of State General Marshal who won the Nobel Peace Prize for it, the Marshal Plan. The United States would grant and lend about 17 billion dollars to foreign countries at little or no interest. Dispersals were over 2 years, the loans would be paid back over 50. In exchange the countries would agree to spend that money along with some of their own money on American durable goods to rebuild their domestic infrastructure destroyed in the war. Now this "aid" went along with an additional 12 billion which the United States had already spent in aid prior to 1948 which wasn't part of the Marshal Plan. Additionally when the Marshal Plan ended in 1950, it was replaced in 1951 by the Mutual Security Act which annually dispersed an additional 7.5 billion in grants and loans. This was in turn replaced by new foreign aid program. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which created the Agency for International Development (AID), which focused more on Latin America.

I would argue those aid programs, which pumped billions of aid annually directly into the US Economy while jump starting Europe's recovery, are what actually created the American miracle economy of the 50's and 60's. Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations said the real wealth of nations resided in their ability to produce goods, not in the gold they had in the bank. If that's the case WWII definitely expanded the United States manufacturing war materials. Again though after WWII the American economy fell into a deep recession. There were no buyers for America's goods. Not until the government subsidized financed economic aid programs began to roll in.

Sources:

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