World War II and the rise of American hegemony

A Liberal Dose


 Last week, I introduced a brief series of columns on the subject of hegemony. If you missed part 1, I will give you a quick review. Hegemony is when one among a cohort of powerful countries, usually as a result of being the least damaged in a catastrophic war, gains influence over the others by being dominant militarily, politically, and economically. This requires the hegemonic power to become a “global policeman,” engaged in wars around the globe to protect their national interests. The United Kingdom of Great Britain achieved hegemony during the Napoleonic wars and held it for about 125 years. In that time, “the sun never set on the British Empire,” and London was the financial center of the world. At the same time, in order to preserve that hegemony, the U.K. fought wars in Afghanistan, South Africa, Burma, Egypt, China, India, the Crimea… and the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, they maintained their hold and, by the end of WWI, in 1918, were at the height of their power.

It all started to unravel with WWII and the beginning of the Nazi bombardment of Britain in 1940. The major cities of England were pounded into rubble, and they lost many of their colonies to the Germans and Japanese. Most of those colonies were regained with the surrender of the Axis powers, but Britain was terribly weakened. Within a few years, after the end of the war, many of their largest and most lucrative colonies around the world declared independence and broke away.

The Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were also pounded into rubble. Most of the other major world powers were also greatly damaged as the war unfolded on their own doorsteps: France, Russia, China… virtually all of Europe and Asia. Only one major combatant emerged relatively unscathed: the U.S.A. Yes, a lot of service members died - though a much smaller percentage of the population than in the other major countries - but, other than Pearl Harbor, there were no major battles fought on American soil. By the end of WWII, the U.S. had replaced the U.K. as the leader of the Allies and the “free world.” This was demonstrated in the summer of 1944 when representatives of all the allied nations met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, and voted to change the basis of international currency exchange from the British pound to the American dollar. It was further cemented two years later when the new United Nations organization was headquartered in New York City. By the late 1940s, America had military, political, and financial dominance. The Soviet Union was a rival superpower during the Cold War, yes, but only the U.S. had hegemony. To prevent the Soviets from wresting that hegemony away, for the first time in American history, a “military industrial complex” developed, and a large standing army was maintained during peacetime, which has been the norm ever since.

U.S. government policy toward their former WWII allies, the Soviet Union started to gel right after the war ended. In February 1946, U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. George Kennan sent President Truman the famous “Long Telegram” outlining the belief that communist powers were ideologically incapable of coexisting with capitalism, and that therefore communism must be “contained” and not allowed to spread to other countries. Following the “Truman Doctrine,” the U.S. from that point forward would always side with anti-communist factions no matter the circumstances. This often led to tunnel vision, with many Americans thinking all communist countries were a united monolith with the same international goals. It also led to constant involvement in foreign wars.

In 1947, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Lippmann wrote a book called “Cold War,” which warned that putting every single political event in the framework of capitalism-vs-communism would cause western governments to miss the true underlying issue… nationalism. Doing this in the 1950s would lead to catastrophe in the 1960s.

To be continued.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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