From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

6
Power and Superpower

The Impact of the Second World War on
America's International Role

The emergence of the United States as a 'superpower' was a phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century, yet it had been predicted long before. Perhaps the most distinguished prophet was Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, who concluded the first volume of Democracy in America with the forecast that one day the United States and Russia would each 'hold in its hands the destinies of half the world'. But many others spoke in the same vein. In 1866, for instance, de Tocqueville's compatriot, the economist Michel Chevalier, urged Europe to unify in the face of the 'political colossus that has been created on the other side of the Atlantic' and foresaw future armed conflict between the two continents. In 1882, Constantin Frantz, the German political commentator, considered it virtually inevitable 'that the New World would outstrip the Old World in the not far distant future', while the English historian J. R. Seeley predicted two years later that within the lifetime of his students, 'Russia and the United States will surpass in power the states now called great as much as the great country-states of the sixteenth century surpassed Florence.'1

In fact, the idea that the future lay with the 'world powers' became almost commonplace in late-nineteenth-century thought about international relations. For much of the century, America and Russia had been spoken of in the same breath as the two great land powers whose vast size and population guaranteed them eventual supremacy. In the last third of the century, however, America's

This chapter was originally given as a conference paper at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey,
in 1986. It reflected my attempts to grapple with the ideas of Paul Kennedy about international
power, later developed in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York, 1988), and he
kindly commented on a draft. The text appears here as published in Warren F. Kimball, ed.,
America Unbound: World War II and the Making of a Superpower (New York, 1992) except for
omission of three paragraphs near the end relating to the 1970s and 1980s.

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer (New York, 1969), 413; Michel
Chevalier, 'La Guerre et la crise europe´enne', Revue des Deux Mondes, 1 June 1866, pp. 784–5;
Constantin Frantz, Die Weltpolitik unter besonderer Bezugnahme auf Deutschland (Osnabruck,
reprint edn., 1966), i. 89; J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England (London, 1884), 301.

-291-

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