In our relatively short history as a country, America has gone from a colony that fought the British because it wanted to be free from its unfair taxes and yearned for the right of self-governance, to the most powerful superpower in the world.
With over 800 military bases spread across the globe and the world’s largest military budget ($877 billion), we have become the leader of the global community and ushered in an era of prosperity while trying to keep global conflict to a minimum.
But how did a small group of settlers looking for a better life grow to become the most important and powerful country on the world stage? One whose position in the world remains pivotal and important for continued global growth and stability?
Today, we’ll go through a brief history of how America put the ‘super’ into a superpower.
1. The Early Days
In the first 70 years of our nation, we expanded both our influence and territory in North America, making our way to the Pacific Ocean in a wave of expansionism that sadly cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who called the land their home. President Barrack Obama would eventually sign a resolution that “urges the President to acknowledge the US wrongs against Indian tribes in the history of the USA in order to bring healing to this land.”
After the expansion from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, the early American colonists were divided as to whether our young nation should expand its influence further afield. After the end of the Civil War, this topic became hotly debated with then-United States Secretary of State William H. Seward arguing that America should seek to be a global power.
He would partly get his wish when he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, but his attempts to buy Greenland and Iceland, as well as annex territory in the Caribbean, were promptly blocked by Congress as anti-imperialist sentiments were strong with both politicians and the public alike.
2. A New Revolution
By the late 1800s, opinions on American expansionism would drastically change with the advent of the industrial revolution. With the explosion of economic growth, the US economy required a more centralized state and bureaucracy to effectively manage its continuing expansion. This change not only put power in the hands of the federal government but would allow expansionist presidents, such as William Mckinley, to push the United States’ influence abroad.
That expansionism would manifest in 1898 when Mckinley, despite opposition, intervened in the Cuban War of Independence with Spain after the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor under mysterious circumstances. To this day there is a debate about whether the cause of the explosion was due to the ship’s powder magazines igniting internally or a Spanish mine hitting the bottom of the ship. It made little difference to newspaper publishers Hearst and Pulitzer at the time as they decided that the Spanish were to blame and war soon followed.
The far superior military might of the United States made quick work of the lackluster Spanish forces and after the defeat took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Over the next two decades, they would take annex the Kingdom of Hawaii, Wake Island, American Samoa, the Panama Canal Zone, occupy the Dominican Republic, and purchase the American Virgin Islands. The acquisition of these territories would see America begin its rise as a global power.
3. Protecting Our Interests
At the same time as acquiring these nations, the need to protect the ever-growing commercial and military interests abroad by installing pro-American regimes in places like Nicaragua became a priority. Playing a major role in international diplomacy on Western presence in China also worked toward America being seen as a serious player on the world stage.
By the time World War I came around, America showed just how influential it had become by playing a significant part in ending the conflict when President Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference and helped negotiate peace. This flexing of America’s military and diplomatic muscle would eventually lead to Wilson creating the League of Nations to promote peace and global cooperation.
Despite Wilson’s efforts to change the global political landscape by putting America at the forefront, Congress still had a largely isolationist outlook and decided to block America from joining the League of Nations, effectively dooming it. During the Great Depression and Hitler’s appearance in Germany, America was more focused on domestic affairs rather than European. This would not last as war was again brewing in Europe and beyond.
4. After the War
With war raging across Europe, America seemed unaffected by the conflict and was eager to remain on the sidelines. That was until the ever-growing Japanese empire launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor just before 08:00 a.m., on Sunday, December 7, 1941, forcing America to enter the war. The participation in World War II would transform America’s global presence forever as they were the only country to avoid economic ruin and the only country to possess atomic weapons.
Although two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s strategy when it came to possessing weapons of such destructive power, was to avoid future conflicts. What’s more, the creation of the United Nations would also aid countries in settling disputes through compromise and the rule of law, the main one being that wars of conquest should be consigned to the pages of history.
The United Nations might be the most famous post-war institution, but another lesser-known institution was created around the same time. One that would change the global financial system forever.
5. Rebuilding the World
From the 1st to the 22nd of July, 1944, 730 delegates from the Allied nations came together at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, resulting in the signing of the Bretton Woods Agreement. This would become the foundation for a new global financial system and would birth the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, cementing America’s involvement in global affairs. However, not everyone was on board.
Despite allying themselves with the Western nations to defeat Hitler, the world’s second-largest power, the Soviet Union, was far from eager to play second fiddle to America’s new vision of the world. Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and elsewhere was a major concern to America’s view of a democratic and free-trading world. As a bulwark against the Soviet Union’s spreading of communism, and at the behest of the Truman administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949 and introduced as a military alliance designed to stop Russia from invading other countries in Europe.
6. The Coldest of Wars
This strategy was referred to as “containment,” as America wanted to contain the spread of Communism. So instead of scaling back their massive military machines created for World War II, both countries instead dedicated more of their budgets to growing their military might. The Cold War created geopolitical tension that would change America’s relationship with the world forever as they had to ally themselves with countries they would never have supported before and began clandestine operations in dozens of countries to contain Soviet influence.
This new strategy was troublesome as it meant supporting anti-communist dictators or supplying rebels with arms and money as they have in Afghanistan in 1979 and Nicaragua in 1985. America effectively became the policeman of the world, as during the Cold War they intervened in hundreds of disputes in numerous countries, either directly or by fighting a proxy war.
After the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapse just two years later, America could have taken those opportunities to sever ties with its allies and scale back its military. Instead, as the last superpower standing, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both decided that it would be in America’s best interests and the world to maintain their involvement and managing of global affairs, arguing that America should be the great peacemaker.
If you want to discover new info about The Cold War, here’s a book you may want to read.
7. The Expansion of NATO
Although NATO was created as an intergovernmental military alliance to stop the spread of communism, after the fall of the Soviet Union, arguably it had served its purpose and should have been disbanded. Instead, not only did America see the alliance as a way of keeping European nations united in the absence of the Soviet threat, NATO began bringing more nations into the fold. This decision and expansion have had a detrimental effect on the 21st century as when the autocratic and authoritarian leader of modern Russia, Vladimir Putin, was inaugurated as President on 7 May 2000, one of his key goals was the destruction of NATO.
Following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in February 2014 and their stated intentions to join NATO, Putin decided enough was enough and annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics. In 2021 and early 2022, Russian troops began massing on the Ukrainian border, and despite Putin denying he was planning to invade the country, no one believed him.
8. America vs Russia (again)
Putin’s justification for invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine was due to, in his eyes, the enlargement of NATO as he saw it as a direct threat to his country. Not only did he expect to conquer Ukraine easily, but he thought that it would be a stark warning to other nations that border Russia, or near Russia, that making moves to join NATO would come with serious consequences.
Unfortunately for Putin, and fortunately for the rest of the world, this strategy blew up in his face as not only has Ukraine put up one hell of a fight, but previously neutral nations like Sweden and Finland are actively seeking membership. If ever there was a time for America to remind everyone why it is the greatest superpower in the world, it is now.
The US Senate may have just approved President Biden’s $40 billion package of military, economic, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, but if Putin decides to invade a NATO ally, America must again show how it put the ‘super’ into a superpower. No one wants to see a third world war, something Biden is acutely aware of, but in this new century, America must once again use its considerable influence and power to remind the world that freedom and democracy are the only way forward.
You may also want to read Still Believing These 14 Myths About GOP? It’s Time to STOP!