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Just Why and How did the U.S become a Superpower?

January 28th 2013 02:55
Over the past 200 years the United States has made the journey from a group of loosely connected colonies with a common goal, to the world’s dominant hegemony. The road has been anything but easy, as this country born of bloodshed and conflict was immediately struck with differences amongst constituent states, the ills of slavery, racism, a bloody and long civil war, the worst economic depression in human history, corruption in the highest office, and terrorism striking at the heart of America. There probably has never been a country more divided in the history of this planet, and yet not one that has exerted the same cultural, political and military influence as the United States. To figure out why, one would have to look at what sets America apart from every country, a unique combination of factors; geography, population, and a spirit of innovation have given rise to the greatest dynasty and the strongest world power that this planet called Earth has ever known.

If one looks at the history of the proverbial “Old World” they’d see a profuseness of wars with colourful names, from the “Hundred Year War” the Crusades, all eight (seven, depending on who you ask), to the English engagement of the Spanish Armada in the 15th Century. On the other hand, you can count all the wars America had been involved in prior to the 20th Century on one hand. Unlike other nations in the world, the United States had the benefit of being situated far enough that invasion by most countries was not feasible, and of course the Munroe Doctrine helped maintain America’s isolation from the incessant disputes and arguing that had gripped Europe for centuries, and laying waste to entire countries. During the span of 200 years, the only real destabilizing events to touch America were 9/11 and the Civil War, both immensely destructive and by no stretch of the imagination insignificant. Take a look however, at what transpired around the globe during this stretch: During this period, there was three major genocides, two of the most destructive conflicts in history, the detonation of two of the most destructive weapons the world has known, the Napoleonic Wars and casualty-heavy internal rife that marked much of 20th Century British history. While the European mainland was repeatedly devastated over the course of two centuries by repeated conflict, wiping out possible economic growth and holding back industrialization, the United States, with its vast natural wealth, and expansive unsettled territory, was able to rapidly industrialize. Of important note was also that the few neighbors the Americans did were not any significant threat to them. Following the War of 1812, which besides an incursion into Washington was mostly a stalemate, there was an unspoken cessation of hostilities between the two territories, and with Canadian independence in 1867, followed by expanded trade in the years that followed, that threat was nullified. Mexico’s early relationship with the United States was even better in that internal turmoil made the Mexicans helpless as America in turn annexed Texas, California and swallowed up large swathes of what is now the American Southwest. To summarize, while every world power was worrying about military spending and rebuilding landscapes devastated by decades of war, the United States, besides a brief period of reconstruction following the Civil War in the 1870s, moved to construct vast cities, robust farms, and set up profitable extraction industries. These enterprises stretched across a giant landmass that touched two oceans, with tall mountains, deep canyons, and long stretches of golden fields in between, marking the pristine, untouched nature of the landscape, reflecting in some ways the blissful ignorance of European affairs that this land and its geographical isolation afforded them. By the time World War Two rolled around, the United States, having had decades to build up a formidable economic and military machine, was ready to step on the world stage in spectacular fashion.

Of course, Americans did not become a superpower solely because of where they were located. China, Japan and the Korean Empire all had isolationist policies and were thousands of miles away from the powers that sought to control them, (Ironically America and the famed naval captain Mathew Perry had a role in Japan’s case) and ended up worse off due to it. So what else may have played a part in the United States’ stunning ascendance to global supremacy? A fast growing population that was skilled, young and predominantly mobile, settling all corners of this fast-growing republic, strengthening the country in matters of sovereignty, economics, and military. Following Thomas Jefferson’s completion of the famed “Louisiana Purchase,” and the Lewis & Clark expeditions to the westernmost extent of America, a mass migration of people from the established states we now know as “New England” to the unknown West ushered in a new chapter of American history. This period that continued throughout most of the 19th Century up to the first decade of the 20th Century gave rise to the Oregon Trail, the Wild West that was the genesis of so many John Wayne movies and pride in the strong worth ethic of Americans, man or woman. In fact it was so successful that is stoked fears in Canada over sovereignty and whether America would attempt to push its boundaries out west northward to make more room for the thousands of settlers showing up every year. Enough so that the Canadian government made a push for more settlers, and tried to attract Eastern European farmers in a bid to settle the west more quickly and ward off any attempted American expansion. And what this western expansion brought was not only reaffirmation of American control of everything to the West that was not already in Canadian hands, but guns, a lot of guns. One only has to look at a Clint Eastwood western ("That’s right. I've killed women. I've killed children. I've killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one point. And now I'm here to kill you Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.") to see just how vital guns were for survival in the real version of the “Wild West”. In a place where the reach of the law was limited to say the least, protection was usually DIY, and in the form of firearms. And then with a population in possession of so many guns, and experienced and trained in the usage of them, an invasion would be complicated by the sheer number of civilians that would not only resist occupation, but would actively fight back in well-armed militias, thanks to the 2nd amendment, now enshrined in the American constitution. A gold rush in the 1890s sent waves of speculators to the West Coast in hopes of striking it rich, and in the process created huge economic growth as the gold trade brought in millions for the American economy and created thousands of spinoff jobs, forming cities founded by the miners that lived on even after the gold rush subsided. Newly-established industries such as oil extraction (with J.D Rockefeller and his SO), forestry, fishing, farming and ranching all played a significant role in modernizing and fueling America’s economy, all thanks to a population that was rapidly growing not just in numbers, as was the case in China, but more wealthier and productive. This allowed the government to field a modern, large and well-trained army that initially served as a deterrent to enterprising belligerent nations, but would soon form the groundwork for a fighting force that would enforce American ideology and protect allies across the globe all the way into the 21st century.

Although expansion happened rapidly and brought tremendous growth to the country, the road to settlement of the West was not easy, as vast distances separated individuals who often left their families in search of opportunities out West, and the journey was long and often treacherous. Bad weather, disease, and shady characters all posed risks, and would have discouraged many. In America however these problems were viewed as surmountable issues that could be dealt with, and it encouraged developments in technology and science that continues to this day. Developments such as the revolver, steamboat and engine were necessitated by the quadrupling of American territory from 1800 to 1900, but by no means was this only reason for the frantic innovation that defined this period. Changes in patent registration regulation made during the 1830s, which meant that new patents required a model in order to receive a patent for their innovation. This created a patent frenzy, because just 60 years after the new regulations came into effect, almost 700,000 patents were granted, with just a fraction of that having been granted from the time of the Patent Office’s founding and the changes of the regulation 40 years later. Abraham Lincoln, himself a patent holder, remarked on the changes during his presidency by saying “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Fostered early on, this cultural obsession with finding a better way of doing something gave the world the assembly line, the machine gun and flight, revolutionizing just about every aspect of society as a whole, forever leaving America imprinted on the global conscious in a way the Ancient Egyptians or Ancient Chinese are. Not only did this innovation bring about cultural change, such as the establishment of a dominant movie industry, weapons technology ensured America remained on the forefront of military strength during the 20th century, with other countries playing catch up. To this day, American films, television, magazines, newspapers, awards shows and cars are seen, heard and consumed by eager audiences across the globe. Copies of American nuclear weapons sit in arsenals, American ICBMs are stationed across the globe, and American-made weapons are trafficked every day, propping up unjust dictators, enabling Saudi police to repress protesters in Bahrain and provide the Chinese with the means to make cheaper versions in larger quantities; And of course, the United States army, deployed around the world, attests to just why American innovation has made them a superpower. Top secret drones Iran has failed to replicate, guns that can mow down hundreds in a minute, and new technologies that enhance the capabilities of soldiers beyond what just a century ago was thought as impossible are a living example of just how American technology and entrepreneurship, from the internet to the iPhone, have, for better or for worse, have changed the world and allowed it to gain world supremacy.


If George Washington woke up today, and saw just what the nation he had founded had become, what would he think? Would he, critical of the formation of political parties and undue influence of special interests in politics, be shocked and saddened at just how gridlocked, ideological and partisan the U.S has become? Or would he be proud at the valiant efforts of thousands of American troops that helped bring American principals of freedom, accountable government and wealth to millions of people across the globe, and the way the country he founded has asserted itself on the world stage? Regardless, we can all agree that the America today looks nothing like George Washington’s America, with a population exponentially larger, transformed by a technological prowess espoused during the century and a half of isolationism brought by America’s distance and policy towards global affairs. The United States’ unique combination of factors enabled them to rise as the dominant power faster than ever seen before.

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