Emergence of USA as a World Power

The emergence of the USA as a world power was a process. Between 1865 and 1975, the United States of America went through vast periods of transformation, culminating in its emergence and establishment as the world's preeminent superpower. What were the important events which solidified America's status as a world power? What were the prevalent ideologies and groups of this period? And what is a superpower, anyway?

Emergence of USA as a World Power Emergence of USA as a World Power

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Table of contents

    Key terms

    Laissez-faireLiterally 'let them do [what they will]'. It refers to limited government intervention in a country's economy.
    PatronageThe distribution of jobs and favours to those who have given political support.
    PopulismA style of politics that aims to mobilise the population against those in power. In US history, it refers specifically to the Populist Movement of the 1890s.
    ProgressivismA political movement in US history beginning in the late nineteenth century to address issues caused by the rapid modernisation of American society.
    IsolationismA policy of playing no role in the affairs of other countries.
    ImperialismA policy of extending a country's influence beyond its own borders.
    DisarmamentThe reduction or withdrawal of a state's military forces.
    ContainmentGeopolitical strategy to prevent the spread of communism.

    The Era of Reconstruction of the US, 1865–77

    After the Union (the North) won the Civil War against the Confederacy (the South), the United States entered Reconstruction. This period saw massive changes in society, notably concerning the rights of African-Americans. There were two distinct periods within the Reconstruction: Presidential Reconstruction from 1865-1867, followed by Radical Reconstruction (1866-77).

    Presidential Reconstruction

    This was led by Andrew Johnson after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865.

    Johnson offered a pardon to all Southern whites except the Confederate leaders and wealthy planters (farmers who owned many slaves). However, many of these people were granted individual pardons. All rights and property, except slaves, were restored. The states that made up the Confederacy were required to abolish slavery and reject secession. These actions did little to prevent discrimination against African-Americans in the South, as state governments introduced the Black Codes.

    Black Codes

    A set of laws that involved labour contracts for African-Americans with a goal to re-establish plantation discipline.

    In response, the 1866 Civil Rights Bill was approved by the House of Representatives, defining all persons born in the US as national citizens, who should enjoy equality before the law. Significantly, President Johnson rejected this bill, but it was passed over his veto. The Fourteenth Amendment, which Johnson also opposed, was subsequently introduced, forbidding states from depriving citizens of the equal protection of the law, and providing African-Americans with citizenship and civil rights.

    Radical Reconstruction

    The conflict between Johnson and Congress continued and Northern voters grew discontented with Johnson's policies. This led to the switch from presidential to radical reconstruction.

    The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 outlined more strictly how governments in the South were to be run. Measures were also undertaken to create a 'New South' by funding schools, railroads, and businesses, as well as outlawing racial discrimination in public transport and accommodation. Additionally, African-Americans held positions of political power and began to create their own communities.

    Emergence of USA as a World Power First Coloured Senator and Representatives StudySmarterThe first coloured Senator and Representatives, Library of Congress.

    The picture above shows African-Americans in government positions, demonstrating the transformative element of the Reconstruction era. A key figure of that era was Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist, orator, and social reformer. After his escape from slavery in 1838, Douglass campaigned for the abolition of chattel slavery and equality for African-Americans. Douglass' famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, (1845), contributed significantly to undermining the arguments of anti-abolitionists. He went on to work as a consultant to President Lincoln during the Civil War and held important offices after the abolition of slavery. These included the US Marshal and Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti.

    However, events which improved the position of Black people were unpopular with many white voters and the new position of African-Americans caused violent opposition, particularly from the Ku Klux Klan.

    Johnson was replaced as president by Ulysses Grant of the Republican party in 1868, who oversaw many policies to increase African-American civil rights. All three branches of government, i.e., the legislature (Congress, which included the House of Representatives and the Senate), the executive (the President, Vice President, cabinet, and federal agencies), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court, among other benches) were controlled by the Republicans by 1869. Grant had no difficulty passing his policies. The Fifteenth Amendment was approved, which banned states from restricting the right to vote on racial grounds or previous history of servitude, and political violence was suppressed including the activities of the Klan.

    The rise of the United States

    After the devastation of the Civil War, the boom: the Gilded Age was around the corner.

    The Gilded Age

    Emergence of USA as a World Power The bosses of the Senate StudySmarter'The bosses of the Senate.'

    This was a period of rapid transformation in the United States from the late 1870s until the 1890s, during which it became an industrial nation. The term 'Gilded Age' was coined by novelists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, referring to the prosperity of the era which was undercut by corruption.

    During the 1870s and 80s, the US economy rose at its fastest rate in history. The era saw the expansion of cities, mass immigration, and technological innovations. It was a period of laissez-faire capitalism that benefited big businesses but not the workers. Industrialist leaders and financiers were able to become super-rich and were referred to as robber barons by the general public. Discontent led to strikes, but the federal government tended to side with owners against unions.

    The period also saw a huge political turnout in elections. In some states, this was over 90 percent. However, governments were corrupt. All presidents in the period 1876-92 received less than 50 percent of the vote, hence were restricted in what they could do. They spent most of their efforts repaying political favours from those who helped them to get into office through patronage. This explains why they are often referred to as the 'forgotten presidents'. The image 'The bosses of the Senate' illustrates the immense power of robber barons compared to government officials.

    African-Americans lost many of the civil rights they had gained during Reconstruction, and anti-black violence increased. In the South, conservative white Democratic governments created a system of segregation through the Jim Crow laws.


    In the 1890s, a third party emerged championing populism. Although support for the People's Party was short-lived, it was important in the changing political landscape. The table below outlines the stated aims of the political parties of the time.

    RepublicanDemocratPeople's Party
    • Expansion of business and infrastructure.
    • Encouraged protective tariffs to shield the industry from foreign competition.
    • In favour of tying the dollar to the gold standard.
    • State and local control of government.
    • Opposition to protective tariffs.
    • Valued personal freedom over moral reform.
    • Railroad regulation.
    • Regulation of farm prices.
    • Income tax.
    • Eight-hour working days.
    • The silver standard.

    Reasons for populism

    The People's Party represented the interests of agricultural workers who had become increasingly discontent. The politics of the Gilded Age had helped industry but not agriculture. Farmers saw falling prices in crops due to mechanisation, and unregulated railroads charging high rates to transport crops to markets.

    Additionally, the world production of gold had decreased since 1865, but silver was readily available. The People's Party, therefore, advocated coining silver as well as gold to promote inflation and make it easier for farmers to pay back loans.

    End of the populist movement

    In 1896, the Democratic party incorporated much of the populist platform into their own, including the silver standard. The movement was effectively ended when the Republican Presidential candidate William McKinley won the election. By 1900, most populist activists had joined one of the major parties.


    Progressivism adopted many of the aims of populism and shifted away from the laissez-faire approach of the Gilded Age. Motivating factors included the 1893 recession, poor living standards, corruption, and a demand to regulate the 'robber barons'.

    Progressive aims included:

    • A greater role for the federal government
    • Tackling corruption
    • Ensuring the rights of workers
    • Silver coinage
    • State-funded welfare benefits
    • Reforms to help women and African-Americans
    • Prohibition of alcohol

    Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft

    Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. He enacted laws to achieve the above aims. He passed forty-four antitrust acts, tackled corruption, and controlled railroad rates.

    William Howard Taft took over the presidency in 1908 and continued to implement progressive policies with eighty anti-trust acts and the introduction of an eight-hour day for government employees. He supported the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, which introduced federal income tax and the direct election of senators. However, he was more closely aligned to the conservative wing of the Republicans, and Roosevelt returned in 1912 to oppose him.

    Roosevelt founded the Progressive Party and ran for president in 1912, against Taft and the Democrat candidate Woodrow Wilson. The split in the Republican party between Roosevelt and Taft allowed Wilson to win the election. Wilson continued the progressive agenda, whilst also lowering tariffs and changing the foreign policy stance of the US.


    African-Americans were active in resisting the restrictive Jim Crow laws, and the intensity of this resistance only increased throughout the Progressive era.

    Prominent activists emerged, one of the first being Ida B Wells. She sued a railroad company for forcibly removing her from a white-only carriage in 1892. Wells also went on to expose lynchings, sexual harassment, and school segregation through her newspaper at great risk to herself. She had to move to the North to continue her activism after being threatened by an angry mob. Another important figure is WEB Du Bois, whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk was highly influential. Wells and Du Bois were founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, which would become pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement.

    Since the introduction of the Jim Crow laws, African-Americans had been emigrating away from areas where those laws were most restrictive. This intensified when The Great Migration began in 1915–16, with mass movement to the North, as well as to the West and cities in the South. Between 1915 and 1920 alone, around one million Black people moved to the North, which increased racial tensions.

    US foreign policy pre-First World War

    Isolationism is a recurrent theme in the history of US foreign policy, with the US reluctant to get involved in the affairs of other nations. However, this policy was abandoned in favour of imperialism as the country industrialised. It needed foreign markets and raw materials.

    The Monroe Doctrine was a key piece of enduring US foreign policy, which opposed European colonialism in the Americas. This was acted upon by William Seward, Secretary of State for Lincoln and Johnson, who threatened military action against the French during the Civil War as they occupied Mexico. He also favoured expansionism and bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.

    The late 1890s saw a period of US imperialism. The US once again acted upon the Monroe Doctrine when they entered the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba was controlled by Spain and revolutionaries were demanding independence. The US launched an attack on Spanish territories in Cuba and The Philippines, winning them the war. As a result, Cuba gained independence, but the US had control of Guantanamo Bay. Spain also ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the US and allowed them to purchase The Philippine Islands.

    US involvement in Cuba increased through the 1901 Platt Amendment which gave the Americans control of Cuba's foreign, financial, and commercial policy. A 1903 treaty also made the economy dependent on the US and imposed a new political system. It is at this point of increasing US involvement abroad that it can be said that America became a world power.

    In Latin America:

    • The US supported Panama's revolt against Colombian rule and bought ownership of the Panama Canal in 1903.
    • Roosevelt took control of the Dominican Republic's customs revenue to pay off their debt to the US in 1904.
    • Taft sent marines into Nicaragua to install a pro-American president. The US set up a protectorate from 1912-33.
    • The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
    • The US played a substantial role in the Mexican Revolution and was on the brink of war until they withdrew in 1917.

    In the Pacific:

    • After the Civil War in Samoa, the US established a protectorate in Eastern Samoa in 1899.
    • In 1898, the US annexed Hawaii.

    In the Far East:

    • Roosevelt helped to negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, but Japan blamed the US for Russia not paying war indemnity. In 1908, Japan and the US agreed to respect each other's interests in China.
    • The US favoured an open-door policy in China where countries respected each other's trade interests.

    Whilst Taft's foreign policy relied on dollar diplomacy, Wilson's administration immediately cancelled all dollar diplomacy efforts.

    Dollar diplomacy

    An economic policy that established the interests and involvement of the US in overseas markets, mostly in Latin America, through financial investment.

    The US during the First World War and its aftermath

    Emergence of USA as a World Power Us Army Recruitment Poster WWI StudySmarterUS Army recruitment poster from the First World War.

    The US took a stance of neutrality in the First World War, but in practice, this was hard to achieve. To many, the Allies represented democracy and the balance of trade was also in their favour. Before the US entered the war, investors were providing billions of dollars in loans to the allies to fund the war effort. A programme was undertaken to prepare the US for war should it be needed under the newly established Council of National Defense.

    Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the basis that he had kept America out of the war, but this was not to last. In 1917, Germany resumed submarine warfare on all Allied or neutral ships and the US subsequently broke diplomatic relations with them. In April 1917, the US entered the war in order to make the world ‘safe for democracy’.

    The Allies won the war in 1918 and Germany asked for peace according to Wilson's Fourteen Points. These favoured national self-determination and the establishment of the League of Nations.

    At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up which imposed heavy reparations on Germany and dismantled its empire. Notably, although the League of Nations was established there was not enough support in the US government to join, so it entered into separate peace treaties.

    The Republican candidate Warren G Harding won the 1920 election, promising a return to normalcy against Roosevelt's activism and Wilson's idealism.

    The roaring twenties

    The 'Roaring Twenties' saw the economy boom and living standards increase, with a sharp rise in consumerism.

    This was due to a huge reduction in government spending, tax cuts, and high tariffs. This was spearheaded by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who worked under all three Republican presidents, Warren Harding (1921–23), Calvin Coolidge (1923–28), and Herbert Hoover (1928–33). These presidents acted on the idea of republican conservatism, that 'too much' government stifled innovation and progress. US economic policy returned to one of laissez-faire.

    Emergence of USA as a World Power A flapper from the 1920s StudySmarterA ‘flapper’ from the 1920s, George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

    This period also witnessed a great surge of creativity and innovation, emphasised by the beginnings of the Jazz Age.

    Social changes

    The end of the First World War saw the first Red Scare in the US. There was fear that the US was on the verge of revolution and thousands of suspected radicals were arrested. The country also introduced legislation to control immigration and specified quotas for each nationality, to encourage more 'desirable' immigrants.

    Red scare

    A period of widespread fear of radical leftist and anarchist ideology and possible insurrection.

    Having worked throughout the First World War, the onset of peace saw women leaving the workforce. However, female employment grew throughout the 1920s. Women were given the right to vote in 1920 through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The flapper became a symbol of changing society in that decade, representing a challenge to traditional values and arguing for more sexual freedom, although for most women not much changed. These changes were most relevant to young unmarried women, with married women remaining in the home in their traditional sphere.

    Social advances saw backlash from fundamentalist protestants and some states banned the teaching of evolution. The KKK also reached 3.8 million members in the 1920s until membership declined again in 1925. In 1920, the

    Eighteenth Amendment made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal, but this was a failure. The illicit trade of alcohol grew and led to organised crime, leading to the repeal of prohibition by the Twenty-first amendment in 1933. Historians refer to this period as the 'Prohibition period.'

    Foreign policy between the wars

    After the war, US foreign policy focused on disarmament by signing deals with foreign powers. The US also introduced the Dawes Plan in 1924 to provide a loan to Germany to pay their reparations to Britain and France, who would then pay off their US loans with the money. Germany's reparations were reduced in 1929 and the payment period was extended. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 outlawed war as an avenue of national policy and was signed by the US, France, and twelve other nations.

    This period also saw a decline in imperialism as Hoover argued that the Monroe Doctrine did not justify US intervention in the Americas.

    The Great Depression

    The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression which lasted until 1939. President Hoover implemented a series of actions aiming to tackle the crisis, but they were largely ineffective and by 1933 unemployment had reached almost 25 percent.

    Emergence of USA as a World Power Unemployed men queueing for food during Great Depression StudySmarterUnemployed men queueing for food during the Depression, Library of Congress.

    Roosevelt and the New Deals

    Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in March 1933, promising a New Deal for the American people. He began to tackle the economic crisis immediately. During the first hundred days of his tenure, Roosevelt focused on tackling unemployment and improving quality of life. He reformed banks, passed emergency relief and work relief programs, as well as tackling the agricultural crisis.

    Although the economy improved slightly, unemployment remained high, so Roosevelt introduced the Second New Deal. This included the Social Security Act, public works funding, and union protection programs.

    Minorities were hard hit by the Depression, and relief programs often paid them less. The Hispanic population declined rapidly in the 1930s as families were deported due to anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of limited resources and jobs for white Americans. The period did however see more African-Americans and women in positions of federal government than ever before.

    The 1937 recession led to a sharp cut in federal spending and a reduction in people's disposable incomes. The New Deal programs helped stem the economic crisis, but the Great Depression was ended by the Second World War, due to expanding industrial production, which in turn decreased unemployment.

    Improved relations with neighbours

    The Good Neighbour policy was introduced, and the US improved relations with countries in central and southern America. Troops withdrew from Haiti and Nicaragua and control of Cuba through the Platt Amendment ended. The US also recognised and began diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1933.

    Did war lead to the emergence of the United States as a world power?

    Despite the US preference for neutrality, its eventual involvement in the Second World War, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union that followed, certainly assisted its rise in world power. This would not be the first time the US had benefited from War, as the Spanish-American war of 1898 led it to acquire multiple foreign territories and power on the world stage.

    Providing military equipment to the Allies during the Second World War greatly boosted the US economy. As the war was not fought on US soil, the country emerged from the war in a much stronger position than Europe. The US was so strong that it was able to financially rebuild other countries, providing the US with a strong trade network to further boost its economy.

    The start of the Cold War further positioned the US as a superpower. America was able to consolidate a political and economic monopoly across the globe as its strength enabled it to become the protector of 'the free world' against communism.

    The US during the Second World War

    Roosevelt immediately announced neutrality, but the US supported the British and the USSR indirectly. The Lend-lease bill of 1941 gave Roosevelt the power to lend, sell, or exchange military equipment and supplies to any nation that was vital to the defence of the US.

    The Japanese attack on US naval base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941 prompted FDR to declare war on Japan. A few days later, Germany and Italy subsequently declared war on the US, resulting in America's direct involvement against the Axis powers.

    The war effort

    Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during the war, including over 350,000 women. African-Americans served in segregated units or were given menial jobs and service duties.

    17 million new jobs were created in the US as well. The industry was converted from consumer products to making military vehicles and other materials. Over five million women entered the workforce in establishments such as defence plants. However, they were paid lower wages and most left work at the end of the war.

    Nearly two million African-Americans were also working in war plants by 1944. Days before a march to protest African-American segregation at work, led by A. Philip Randolph, a prominent labour leader in the Black community, Roosevelt introduced Executive order 8802. Starting June 1941, employment discrimination based on race or national origin was banned.

    Racial tensions increased with many African-Americans migrating to the North for work. Mexican Americans were also targeted, as were Japanese families on the West Coast. During the war, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in forcible relocation centres. Some ended up in internment camps.

    The end of the War

    The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been pressuring Britain and the US to open a second front in France since 1943, but this was postponed until June 1944. Roosevelt died in 1945 and Harry Truman took over as president in April 1945. After the allied victory in May 1945, America turned its efforts to the war against the Japanese empire.

    The US had experienced many casualties in battles against the Japanese, which led to the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. The US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing over 120,000 people instantly and more in the aftermath, effectively ending the war. The United Nations was established at the end of the war to maintain international peace.

    The end of the Second World War did not mean the end of all war, as the US entered into the Cold War with the Soviet Union almost immediately after. This would dictate its foreign policy until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The Soviets had great influence over Eastern Europe, and the emergence of communism in other European nations threatened the US.

    Post-war America

    The economy was quickly reconverted into producing civilian goods, but people could not afford to buy much due to the end of price and wage controls. In 1946, there were mass strikes for higher wages which Truman suppressed, losing him considerable support. Truman's Fair Deal did go on to increase the minimum wage, expand social security, and provide funding for public housing and farm price supports.

    After the war, there was a baby boom and an increase in demand for housing, which led to the growth of suburbia, i.e., residential areas on the outskirts of cities. Movement out of the city also had racial grounds as African-Americans were moving into the city. This phenomenon is referred to as white flight. As a consequence, minorities came to make up a larger percentage of inner-city residents.

    Foreign policy during the Cold War

    The key element of US foreign policy after the Second World War was containment, i.e., not allowing the further spread of communism. This led to the introduction of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which pledged US support for countries resisting a communist takeover. In May of that year, the US gave aid to both Greece and Turkey, which were both at risk of communist revolution.

    In June 1947, the Marshall Plan was launched, offering US assistance to Europe to rebuild regions after the war and prevent the spread of communism.

    Other key events included:

    • The Berlin Airlift: Germany, and Berlin, had been divided into four zones after the war. When Britain, France, and the US merged their zones in 1948, the USSR blocked all access to Berlin. Truman ordered an airlift to the residents of West Berlin, and the blockade was ended in 1949.
    • Founding of NATO: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded in 1949 to provide collective security against communism.
    • The founding of the People's Republic of China: the communist party came to power in China in 1949. However, the US recognised the nationalist party that had moved its base to Taiwan as the legitimate government until 1972.
    • The Korean War: after communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the US sent in troops under the UN. The war ended in 1953, with 30,000 Americans killed.

    Internal security

    The beginning of the Cold War led to anti-communist hysteria. In 1947, government employees were investigated leading to two thousand resignations and over two hundred dismissals. In 1951, the Rosenberg trials fueled further suspicion as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death. Alger Hiss, an ex-government employee, was also convicted of perjury.

    The (second) Red Scare was highly influenced by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who spearheaded investigations into the US government in search of communists throughout the 1950s. The trials mentioned above supported his claims of a mass communist infiltration. This period is referred to as McCarthyism.

    The Rosenberg and Alger Hiss cases played a key role in the declining popularity of the Democrats, as did involvement in the Korean War. This led to the election of the Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

    The USA in the 1950s

    Eisenhower was in office from 1953-61, a period which saw the mobilisation of the Civil Rights Movement, social transformation, and continuation of the Cold War.

    For middle-class Americans, the 1950s were a time of prosperity, with advances in medicine, more consumer products, and an increase in white-collar work. However, 35 million Americans were below the poverty line by 1960. Additionally, millions of immigrants were deported in this period, although they had initially been invited to work in the US.

    The Civil Rights movement

    Emergence of USA as a World Power Protest against racial mixing StudySmarterA protest against racial mixing, Library of Congress.

    Protests and mobilisation from the black community challenged Jim Crow segregation laws. In 1954, in the landmark Brown versus Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court found that segregation in schools was inherently unconstitutional. Desegregation was immediately ordered. In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, black students were prevented from entering the high school by a white mob supported by the Arkansas national guard at the request of Governor Orval Faubus. Eisenhower responded by sending in the army and placing the Arkansas national guard under federal authority.

    Further developments included:

    • The Montgomery Bus Boycott: this was a protest campaign against the Alabama public transport system after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. In December 1955, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transport was unconstitutional.
    • Civil Rights Acts 1957 and 1960: measures were put in place to ensure black people were not prevented from voting.

    Discrimination continued with the revival of the KKK and opposition to desegregation. Mexican Americans were also targeted, and the Indigenous peoples of America were encouraged to leave their reservations and sell their lands.

    Foreign policy in the Eisenhower era

    Although Eisenhower had criticised Truman for not being strong enough against communism, he did not attempt to roll back the Soviet influence. Instead, US foreign policy relied upon readiness to use nuclear weapons.

    Notable events and areas of interest included:

    • Vietnam: the US began to offer support to the South Vietnamese government. It created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) to prevent the spread of communism in the region.
    • Iran: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a coup in 1953 to return a pro-Western leader to power.
    • Egypt: when the US and Britain backed out of funding the Aswan Dam in 1956, leader Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that he would nationalise the Suez Canal. Israel, Britain, and France invaded Egypt in retaliation. Under US pressure, troops were withdrawn under the aegis of the UN. The Eisenhower Doctrine asserted that the US would use force to resist communism in the area.
    • Latin America: the CIA supported the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, and placed an embargo on Cuban sugar when communist Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

    Eisenhower promoted summit diplomacy with the USSR, which eased tensions for a time. However, at a summit in 1960, the Soviet Union revealed a US spy plane had been shot down over the USSR, forcing Eisenhower to admit the missions had been operating for four years.

    Kennedy's New Frontier

    John F Kennedy narrowly won the 1960 presidential election. His 'New Frontier' referred to the 'new' society of the 1960s, as well as space exploration. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, space had become the new Cold War battleground. The term is also used generally to refer to Kennedy's domestic and foreign policies.

    He died before key aspects of his agenda were passed, including education aid and the introduction of Medicare. However, he was successful in providing new housing, raising the minimum wage, cutting taxes, and lowering tariffs.

    Concerning civil rights, Kennedy sent federal troops to enable African-American student James Meredith to enter the University of Mississippi, the first black student to do so. The Jim Crow laws continued to be challenged during his presidency, and Martin Luther King Jr's famous 'I have a dream' speech was given in August 1963.

    Emergence of USA as a World Power Martin Luther King jr. StudySmarterIllustration of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Foreign policy in the Kennedy era

    Kennedy's foreign policy most notably involved Cuba. He approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. It was a disaster, and the Soviet Union increased aid to Cuba. In 1963, the suspicion that the Soviet Union had placed missiles on Cuba, effectively within range of the US, triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis. This brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, which was only avoided by the USSR promising to remove the missiles from Cuba. In the aftermath of the crisis, a hotline was established between Washington and Moscow in an attempt to improve relations. The two powers, along with Britain, signed a nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy also increased US aid to South Vietnam.

    He was assassinated on 22 November 1963, and was replaced by his vice president Lyndon Johnson.

    Johnson's Great Society

    Johnson's 'Great Society' was one in which poverty, disease, and racial injustice did not exist. After taking over from Kennedy, Johnson won the 1964 election and continued Kennedy's work in many ways.

    Johnson's domestic policy saw Medicare passed, vast housing reform, education aid, and funding for the humanities, arts, and the environment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public accommodation, furthered desegregation in schools, and protected equal employment opportunities. In 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in elections, thereby enforcing the fifteenth amendment. Further acts were passed to ensure voting rights, and registered African-American voters tripled between 1964 and 1968. Johnson also signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prevented racial discrimination in the renting and selling of homes. These laws dismantled Jim Crow and its segregated institutions.

    Johnson's domestic policy

    Society was in an era of transformation.

    • The Civil Rights movement was evolving, with political activists Malcolm X and Kwame Ture spreading the political philosophy of 'Black Power'. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by revolutionaries Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
    • Migrants struck work for improved wages and working conditions.
    • The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 to advocate for indigenous rights.
    • The National Origins system was ended, and more immigrants and refugees from South Vietnam were accepted.
    • Feminism grew, with Betty Friedan publishing The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966.
    • The Gay Liberation Front was founded in 1969 after the Stonewall riots.
    • US counterculture was taking off, with the growth of the 'New Left', increased student activism against university administrations, and rising sentiment against the war in Vietnam.

    Foreign policy

    Johnson further increased US involvement in Vietnam. In 1964, North Vietnamese boats fired on American destroyers and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorising Johnson to take any action to repel attacks against the US.

    Operation Rolling Thunder involved the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam from 1965-68. Ground troops were sent over in 1965, and anti-war protests grew.

    The Tet Offensive, launched in 1968 by North Vietnam against US bases in South Vietnam, caused Johnson's popularity to decline drastically. Peace talks began in May 1968.

    Nixon and the Republican revival

    Richard Nixon served as President of the US from 1969-1974. This era saw the return of Republicanism, although Democrats kept control of the House and Senate.

    Domestic policy

    A key element of Nixon's domestic policy was New Federalism, which sought to limit the power of the federal government. Johnson's 'Great Society' and the war in Vietnam had led to inflation, which Nixon failed to tackle, although he cut spending and increased interest rates.

    Compared to Johnson, Nixon was less sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. He appointed four justices to the Supreme Court, which impacted many decisions.

    Foreign policy

    There were three key areas of Nixon's foreign policy.

    • Vietnam: Nixon introduced Vietnamisation, in which South Vietnamese troops began taking over the fighting as American troops were withdrawn. Nixon was responsible for expanding the war to Cambodia and Laos, which increased anti-war demonstrations. He continued to order heavy bombing of North Vietnam, and the Peace Accords were signed in 1973. However, fighting resumed shortly after and Vietnam was unified under communist control.
    • China: Under Nixon, relations with China improved. Nixon himself visited China in 1972, and trade and cultural exchanges increased immediately.
    • USSR: Nixon also met with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement was signed. The Cold War continued, however, as the US supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, whilst the Soviet Union supported the Arab states.

    The USA in 1975

    Nixon resigned from office in August 1974, after the Watergate Scandal led to three charges of impeachment against him.

    Gerald Ford took over the presidency and set about tackling the economic issues Nixon had failed to remedy. He further reduced spending and raised interest rates, but the recession got worse, and unemployment rose. The activism of the 1960s also continued into the 1970s, with increasing demands for rights for minorities. In terms of the Cold War, détente remained a high priority and further arms limitation agreements were discussed.

    By 1975, the USA was a completely different nation than it had been in 1865. Society had been transformed. There was increasing equality, and the US had become a superpower engaged in an ideological conflict with another global giant, the USSR.

    Key takeaways

    • The idea of 'protecting democracy' played a huge part in the increased role of the US in world politics. It entered both World Wars as well as the Cold War against the Soviet Union while citing this as a motivating factor.
    • Periods of change can be attributed to which President was in power and what political party they belonged to. Consider, for example, Andrew Johnson's 'Reconstruction', or Kennedy's 'New Frontier'.
    • Although the US emerged as a superpower fighting to protect democracy, they themselves interfered with the affairs of other countries, with a view to installing pro-US governments, and for imperialist purposes.
    • Both World Wars caused economic booms in the US. These shaped post-war politics, with the Second World War even ending the Great Depression.
    • The United States was rarely united in this period, as huge transformations in both domestic and foreign policy aroused disapproval in politicians and the population alike. The legacies of slavery remained a key area of contention. The Civil Rights Movement exemplifies this.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Emergence of USA as a World Power

    What is a world power?

    A world power refers to a country that has significant influence in world affairs.

    Why did the United States seek to become a world power?

    The US initially did not seek to become a world power, favouring isolationism and internal strength. However, the benefits from becoming involved in international affairs soon became evident. By the twentieth century, the US was increasingly dependent on and benefiting from foreign trade. The imperialism of European powers at the time also made many Americans feel the need to compete in order to maintain their strong economy. Increasingly, the US sought to become a world power in order to spread its ideology and make the world safe for democracy.

    What are the seven world powers?

    There is no definitive list of the seven world superpowers, especially as this is not a concrete categorisation. In The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison (1998), Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States are listed as the great powers in 1939. Contrastingly, Joshua Baron’s 2014 book, Great Power, Peace and American Primacy lists China, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States as the contemporary world powers. More recent lists have included Saudi Arabia, India, and South Korea. However, the US is consistently considered the most powerful nation on earth.

    When did America emerge as a world power?

    America became a world power in the early 1900s when its foreign policy stance switched from one of isolationism to one of spreading influence and getting involved in world affairs for its own advantage. The power of the US on the global stage increased through its involvement in the World Wars.

    How did the United States emerge as a world power in the early 1900s?

    By the early 1900s, the US had undergone huge economic growth in the Gilded Age and become an industrial nation. This led the US to increasingly engage with other countries in search of markets and raw materials. This saw a period of imperialism during which the US gained a considerable amount of influence, most notably due to involvement and triumph in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which country did the US not intervene in before the First World War? 

    Which of these was not a development of the Civil Rights Movement under Eisenhower?

    What type of diplomacy did Eisenhower promote with the USSR?


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