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It is believed by some that the USA raised itself as a superpower in 1956 by pressuring the UK and France to end the Suez Crisis.

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On the other hand, the above image could be considered to show that the US economy became big enough and the US military was strong enough to topple the British empire to become a superpower a few years after the end of the American Civil War.

So, my question is, why is it often considered that the USA waited until the end of WW2 to assume the status of a superpower?

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    Being rich does not equate to being superpower, especially before the 1940s. And vice versa. For one, USA had no army to speak of before WWII (while having a capable Navy). Or for another perspective, Spain could certainly be considered a superpower in the 1500s, despite barely registering on this graph.
    – Zeus
    Sep 13, 2021 at 4:08
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    I seriously question that chart. If one considers the British Empire including its colonies, it can't possibly be correct (before 1940). They count India as a country when it didn't even exist as such etc.
    – Fizz
    Sep 13, 2021 at 6:14
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    It's only around 1916 that the US overtook the British Empire economy theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/12/… and this is no small part because the British were buying a large swath of the US industrial output for their war effort.
    – Fizz
    Sep 13, 2021 at 6:22
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    Have you looked at Superpower? Does this help? Sep 13, 2021 at 9:12
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    I don't think you can say the US "waited". It's more accurate to say that the US demonstrated it is a superpower when it was able to compel Britain and France, heretofore considered the pre-eminent great powers of the world, to bend to its will.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 13, 2021 at 10:18

2 Answers 2

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The US simply did not want to be a "superpower", or to be significantly involved in international politics outside the western hemisphere. For further info on this, I'd start research with the Monroe Doctrine and continuing through isolationism.

Between the Revolution and the end of WWII, the US only became significantly involved in European disputes when it was perceived* that it was being attacked. The Spanish-American war ("Remember the Maine"), WWI (Zimmerman telegram, Lusitania sinking), and WWII (Pearl Harbor) all were responses to attacks.

Even after WWII, it generally takes an existential threat (Communism) or a direct attack (9/11) to get significant public support for military action.

*Please, no arguments about whether the perception was accurate, or had been contrived.

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According to Paul Kennedy in the "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," by 1940, the U.S. had about 40% of the world's industrial capacity. This rose to 50% (or more) in 1945, because of the devastation of the other industrial powers. At that time, the U.S. rose "head and shoulders" above other countries.

On the other hand, in 1920, the GDP of the U.S. was ahead of the British Empire by only about 20% (although about triple that of the British Isles alone). Put it another way, we were ahead by a "nose" after World War I.

Finally, the U.S. temporarily had a more powerful military than Great Britain in 1865, but we quickly "demobilized" after the Civil War in order to avoid an "arms race" with Britain that we did not then have the economic power to sustain.

The relative rise of the U.S. actually took place between 1920-1940 but no one realized that until World War II brought it to everyone's attention.

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  • Even in 1940 the US was not a major military power considering its Army and Air Force albeit its navy was in the top 3
    – mmmmmm
    Sep 13, 2021 at 14:49
  • I'd challenge the idea that the demobilization in 1865 had anything to do with Britain. The increased military had the single purpose of subjugating the South (or if you're including the Confederate armed forces, winning independence). Once that was accomplished, there was no point in maintaining a large army. There was similar demobilization after WWI.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 13, 2021 at 16:22
  • @mmmmmm: Paul Kennedy's calculation was that by 1938, the U.S. "war making potential" (basically industrial power) was over 40% of the world's total. Unless it's a short war, what counts is not the "force in being" but the production capacity over the course of the whole war that matters. But America's alleged "weakness" was the reason that nobody "realized" its strength.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 13, 2021 at 17:28
  • @TomAu Yes agreed re overall power but not obvious military power
    – mmmmmm
    Sep 13, 2021 at 17:30
  • @jamesqf: I believe that the "depth" of the demobilization had something to do with Britain. The Union army declined from something like 1 million men to 40,000 in about four years.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 13, 2021 at 17:30

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