Why did USA and USSR emerge as superpowers after WW II?
When you consider the ideological differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, it becomes obvious why the two powers could not get along after World War II. The two superpowers were allies during the conflict, but at the war's conclusion, waged an ideological global war for four decades. But what allowed these two powers to retain so much influence after a long, hard-fought victory over fascism?
The United States, the world's strongest industrial economy in the world, was in better shape after the war than they were during the years of the Great Depression before the war. The GDP had grown significantly and during the war, unemployment had plummeted. Many of the western capitalist countries of Europe were devastated by the effects of war being conducted on their home soil. The former imperialistic powers of England, France, Germany, and Italy were devastated by war. The famed historian and philosopher Noam Chomsky mad this point about the United States evident in the following quote:
Britain kept its position as the dominant world power well into the 20th century despite steady decline. By the end of World War II, dominance had shifted decisively into the hands of the upstart across the sea, the United States, by far the most powerful and wealthy society in world history.
The Soviet Union and Josef Stalin, since the Nonaggression Pact with Adolf Hitler, had maneuvered to assure that the Soviet Union would be rewarded with territory after World War II. At the conclusion of the war, Stalin successfully instituted satellite governments that were communist and would answer to Moscow. Stalin effectively controlled Eastern Europe from Berlin to Moscow after the war. This territory allowed them to grow their communist ideology as well as their economy. Russia was also a country of innumerable resources needed for industry, including petroleum, steel, and foodstuffs. So while the Soviet Union suffered greatly in loss of property and lives during World War II, the conditions existed after the war to allow them to be the other superpower in the world.
It is important to also note that the previous economic and military powers in the world were completely finished off by World War II. Great Britain had been declining for decades but the expense of the war and the devastation of the war combined to create the necessity for a domestic focus and eventually the loss of almost all of their colonial holdings. This created a vacuum that was filled by the proxy expansion and conflicts between the USSR and the USA as they attempted to structure governments around the world to follow their lead.
The USSR also benefitted from a massive influx of aid both financial and military aid that came from the allies. This helped them to make up some of the losses they suffered which then also helped to form the basis for their expansion in the post-war years.
Both the USA and the USSR then also focused on becoming military super powers because they saw it as the only way to prevent "losing" to the other perceived super-power. The massive arms race that led to gigantic military spending on both sides ended up only being sustainable for the USA but for three decades created the illusion of the USSR as a super-power.
The United States emerged from World War II virtually unscathed, except for the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Economically, we were stronger after the war than before it. This put us in a position to be very influential in the rebuilding of Europe’s economies after the war, which worked out to our economic benefit. Also, we were the only country with atomic weapons at that time, which put us in a strategically unique position.
Russia was the other big winner, as far as post-war territory was concerned. The Russians paid a very steep price in the war, both in terms of lives lost and the impact the war had on their country physically. Because they were able to recover after being pushed to the brink by the Germans, they were in a position to dictate peace terms at the Yalta Conference in 1945. They ended up with a lot of territory around their borders.
It is interesting that the U.S. and Russia arrived at their superpower status in such different ways.