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The United States and Western Europe since 1945: From "Empire" by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift

By Geir Lundestad | Go to book overview

2 Cooperation Established: “Empire” by Invitation, 1945-1950

America's Position of Strength 1

In June 1947 British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin argued that the United States was in the position today where Britain was at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Historians have also argued that the American position in 1945 resembled that of the British in 1815. Both countries had completed a triumphant war; their technological revolutions had really taken off; their rivals were exhausted, and it seemed that they both could more or less control world markets.

In absolute as well as in relative terms, America's position after the Second World War was much stronger than Britain's had been at the height of Pax Britannica. It was certainly much stronger than the Soviet position after 1945. In fact, the United States was by far the strongest power the world had ever seen; true, its influence was limited by that of the Soviet Union, but even the Roman empire had been restricted largely to the Mediterranean world. Strong separate empires existed in China, India, and Iran. Harold Laski, British professor of political science, writer, and Labour politician, may have overdone it, but he was still closer to the mark than Bevin when, in November 1947, he wrote that:

America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of its economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive . . . Today literally hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asiatics know that both the quality and the rhythm of their lives depend upon decisions made in Washington. On the wisdom of those decisions hangs the fate of the next generation. 2

America's strength rested on four main pillars: its vast economic superiority, its substantial military lead, the broad domestic base for the foreign policy pursued, and America's strong international-ideological support. The economic base was the most impressive. In constant 1958 prices the American GNP had grown from 209.4 billion dollars in 1939 to 355.2 billion in 1945. Moreover, “only” 400,000 Americans had lost their lives during the war, whereas in the Soviet Union approximately 27 million had died and steel

-27-

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