Which economy will become a world power

USA - history, economy, society

Jörg Nagler

Prof. Dr. Jörg Nagler was a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., director of the Kennedy House in Kiel and has been teaching North American history at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena since 1999. His work focuses on the social and political history of the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, war and society in the USA, history of immigration, German-American cultural transfer and African-American history.

The intervention of the USA is one of the decisive factors for the outcome of the First World War. After that, they are the greatest trading power, but they also suffer particularly from the global economic crisis. They emerged from the Second World War as a superpower.

In 1904 the USA secured sovereignty over the Panama Canal, a strategically and economically important link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Opening voyage of the "Ancona" on August 15, 1914 (& copy akg-images)
The successful outcome of the Spanish-American War led to a power-oriented US foreign policy. Under President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) they were concerned with a policy of equilibrium in the East Asian region so that neither Russia nor Japan would become the dominant great power there after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. However, Roosevelt misjudged the determined Japanese advance and underestimated the negative foreign policy impact of the restrictive and discriminatory US immigration laws against Japanese of 1907, so that US influence in East Asia was initially limited.

In Central America and the Caribbean, however, a consistent implementation of their own economic and geostrategic advantages was pursued. In accordance with the strategic thinking of the time, the fleet formed the core of imperial power, and it was considered desirable to connect the two oceans serving as fields of operations, the Atlantic and the Pacific, by a Central American channel under one's own control. After Great Britain had withdrawn from the Caribbean, the United States therefore supported the Panamanian independence movement against Colombia and in return received the assurance of corresponding privileges in the Canal Zone. When the Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1914, the US sphere of influence in the Caribbean had already expanded considerably. The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico had come under US ownership; Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama and Cuba had protectorate status.

American society, on the other hand, had experienced a crisis of its own national identity before the First World War. This was due on the one hand to the still uncertain role in world politics, on the other hand to the consequences of rapid industrialization. If it had already changed the social fabric, it was further shaken by mass immigration from the 1880s onwards.

From the 1890s onwards, this so-called new immigration no longer came predominantly from Western Europe, but from Southern and Eastern Europe. It sparked a wave of xenophobia as these immigrants were reputed to be unwilling to assimilate and unable to understand and accept American democracy and its values. There were many calls for immigration restrictions and the introduction of a catalog of criteria that immigrants should meet when immigrating, such as writing and reading tests. At that time, Israel Zangwill's play "The Melting Pot" premiered. Since then, the term "melting pot" has been used as a picture of an immigration society in which the most diverse groups unite to form a whole. Rapid urbanization and the increasing number and size of immigrant ghettos in the centers of the East Coast and the Midwest led to social problems and the fear of germ cells of social unrest and turmoil in large cities. While one in four Americans lived in an urban setting in 1870, it was about one in three in 1890, and by the end of World War I in 1918, more people lived in cities than in rural areas.

First World War

When the First World War broke out among the European nations in 1914, US President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) called on his compatriots to be strictly neutral. He warned the many European immigrants - in 1910 the proportion of those born abroad had peaked at almost 15 percent - to think American and to give up old loyalties. In 1910, more than eight million first and second generation members of German origin lived in the USA, a considerable proportion of the total population of around 92 million.

The cultural proximity of the United States - especially the East Coast elite - to Great Britain, however, soon led to a course of "partisan neutrality". There were only half-hearted official protests on the part of the USA against the British naval blockade, which in fact cut off Germany from the outside world and caused it great supply difficulties. The German Reich, on the other hand, was threatened with sanctions due to the submarine war. The foreign trade losses caused by the British blockade were offset by the demand for capital from the Western allies and their need for weapons from the USA, so that the US economy was able to quickly recover from an intervening depression.

Decisive for the increasingly critical attitude of the United States towards Germany were on the one hand the invasion of German troops into neutral Belgium and on the other hand the sinking of the British passenger ship "Lusitania" in May 1915, which also carried 128 men, women and children from the USA Found death. Two events in particular caused the final entry into the war on April 6, 1917: the German unrestricted submarine war, which continued to threaten American life and property, and a German note to Mexico, which in the event of the USA enters the war, a German alliance with Mexico proposed. The encrypted telegram had been decoded by the British secret service and transmitted to the US government.

Intervening in the First World War did not meet with unanimous support in the United States. After all, 50 out of 423 voters in the House of Representatives voted against it, and six out of 88 in the Senate; the national public was initially rather divided. But the government managed to mobilize mentally as quickly as it did military and economic mobilization. With over two million soldiers dispatched to the European theater of war, American engagement proved crucial to the outcome of the war. With the "Fourteen Points" of January 1918, President Wilson defined his war goals and ideas of a peaceful post-war order over which a League of Nations should watch. In November 1918 the German Reich declared its surrender.

Consequences of war

The US killed 116,000 and wounded 200,000, and the political and economic consequences of the intervention were significant. In contrast, the results of the Versailles Peace Conference (January to June 1919) fell short of the high American expectations. Wilson was blamed directly for the failure at home. The Senate decision of November 1919 to reject the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the United States' entry into the League of Nations was to have far-reaching consequences for the global post-war order. The nation evidently wanted to turn away from the fate of Europe and return to isolationism, an attitude expressed by the newly elected Republican President Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) through his famous campaign slogan "Back to normal". With this he expressed the mood of a society that, after the reform and war period, was now predominantly critical of Wilson's idealism. Harding ushered in the dominance of the Republican Party, which also provided the presidents in unbroken succession until 1933. Economically, under Harding's government, the country became the most important trading power and from a debtor nation to the largest creditor in the world; alongside London, New York established itself as the center of world finance. Despite its isolationist foreign policy, the US remained active in foreign trade policy. They expected the repayment of the Allied debts and also had an interest in helping to shape the reparations payments for the defeated. In the "Dawes Plan" of 1924 it became clear that they had a greater understanding of the German repayment difficulties than England and France: They brought about an adjustment of payments to the economic efficiency of the German Reich and made a substantial loan available to it. When the demands again proved to be too high, the annual German payment rates were reduced again in 1929 under American pressure, which documented that the United States was interested in European stability, not least to secure its own investments there.

Interwar period

While fundamental social upheavals took place in Europe in the post-war years, this phase was characterized by continuity in the USA - the "Roaring Twenties" were all about enjoyment and consumption. This attitude was supported by a flourishing and dynamic economy which, under the sign of unbridled capitalism, boosted consumer needs through advertising and recorded annual growth rates of five percent with full employment.

The prohibition that had existed since 1920, the ban on the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages (repealed in 1933), meanwhile, led to the flourishing of organized crime through illegal alcohol production and smuggling. At the same time, the United States was seen as a symbol of modernity par excellence: unmistakable and impressive from the outside due to the dizzying new "skyscrapers" of New York and Chicago, sonically due to the worldwide spread of jazz, individually due to the automobile as an expression of personal mobility in the American way of life . One in five of the now 120 million Americans owned a motor vehicle in 1929, a ratio that was only achieved in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1965.

Great Depression

The economic collapse during the Great Depression, which began with the New York stock market crash in October 1929, was all the more dramatic. The result was bankruptcies and high unemployment, which peaked at 25 percent in 1933. By 1932 the gross national product had fallen by 43.5 percent and industrial production had halved.

Other branches of the economy, such as agriculture, were damaged even more: the fall in the price of agricultural products reduced the gross income of farmers by more than 50 percent. As a result, they could no longer pay their mortgage interest, often had to foreclose their farms and make ends meet as farm workers. Many of them made their way to California in the (often futile) hope of being able to provide better care for their families there - fates that John Steinbeck insistently described in his novel "Frucht des Zorns" (1939).
The demoralization of the population turned out to be just as serious as the economic hardship. Decades of trust in laissez-faire capitalism gave way overnight - as in many other places abroad - to deep social insecurity that shook the foundations of previous outlooks on life and values. This raised the key question of whether a liberal democracy would still be able to counter this crisis.

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No other type of building is so closely linked to the history of the city and architecture of the USA as the skyscraper, which was named in the 1890s. The typical American construction originated in Chicago and New York during the phase of high capitalism, in which the expensive land in the inner cities called upon numerous speculators. The realization that the higher house had more usable space and thus, in view of the constantly rising land prices, a higher economic value, triggered a building boom at the beginning of the 20th century. This construction boom was intended to change the silhouette of American city centers and created a completely new cityscape with the skyline, which became a symbol of urban and economic power. New technical developments were a prerequisite for the invention and the steep career of the American skyscraper. These technical innovations included, for example, the hydraulic "safety elevator", which was first installed in a New York house in 1857, the development of fireproof building materials and the steel and cast iron skeleton construction, which was implemented in the First Ladder Building in Chicago from 1879.

The pragmatic calculation of the potent building owners promoted the development of a purpose-oriented and economical architecture. By the 1920s at the latest, the US skyscrapers had become a global symbol of prosperous capitalism, the cultural symbolism of which was largely rejected in Germany, for example. An essay by Siegfried Kracauer in the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1921 reflected a widespread opinion when it said: "The ugliness of New York City is known to everyone. Tower-like monsters that owe their existence to the unbridled will for power of predatory entrepreneurship stand there wild and irregular side by side, outside and inside, often clad with a splendid pseudo-architecture. "

In the early euphoria, America's skyscrapers were built in any shape and height. It was not until 1916 that guidelines were enforced, initially in New York City, which required the building to taper with increasing height so that the skyscrapers would not "steal the sky" from townspeople. The pyramid-like tapering of the American skyscrapers is therefore not an artistic invention, but a design principle that mediated between the profit-making pursuit of the client and the building guidelines of the cities.

Since 1892, when the trophy for the tallest skyscraper moved from Chicago to New York (Pulitzer Building) and back to Chicago (Masonic and Women’s Temple) within a few months, the vertical race has determined the physiognomy of the two metropolises. The battle between the giants was particularly dramatic at the end of the 1920s, when two competitors openly vied for the title of the tallest house in the world: the Bank of the Manhattan Company and the Chrysler Building. The Chrysler Building won the day because the architect secretly had the seven-story Art Deco spire put together inside the skyscraper so that he could show off a new building helmet just a few hours after the neighboring building was completed. After the New York World Trade Center, which was built in 1972, the Sears Tower in Chicago achieved the title of "tallest building in the world" in 1973. Even if Hong Kong has been able to claim to have more skyscrapers than New York City since the end of the 20th century, and the tallest houses in the world are now in Asia, the race is on its way up as a demonstration of technological mastery and economic potency, also in the USA. [...]

Christof Mauch, The 101 Most Important Questions. American history, C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2008, page 58 f.



New Deal

The Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), elected in 1932, was able to instill renewed confidence in the future among the population. His ambitious economic and social program New Deal, implemented from 1933 to 1939, attempted to overcome the crisis through large-scale measures. In the "first hundred days" of his administration, Roosevelt succeeded in launching a whole series of reforms that spanned every area of ​​the economy: the industrial sector, agriculture, the banking system, welfare and the labor market. Numerous executive agencies were set up to implement the reforms, greatly increasing the federal bureaucracy and strengthening the president's authority. In the course of job creation measures, 8.5 million employees built around 122,000 public buildings, over a million kilometers of new roads, around 80,000 bridges and major projects such as dams and power plants.

The New Deal proved to be quite successful in some areas. For example, the orientation towards the social responsibility of the state was new and helpful, and a social insurance system was created for the first time. However, it was not possible to completely resolve the structural economic crisis. The crisis was only overcome after the USA entered the Second World War in December 1941, when the production of war goods provided further employment.

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Dust bowl

A Washington Evening Star Press reporter coined the term "Dust Bowl" when a severe dust storm swept across the southern Great Plains of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico in April 1935 and swept an area (almost twice the size like the Federal Republic) turned into a desolate desert.Even in New York City, 2,500 kilometers away, the dust darkened the city for five hours. "The worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the white population in North America", as the historian Donald Worster called it, was, on the one hand, the consequence of a dry spell that had already set in in the 1930s. On the other hand, it resulted from the profit-oriented and reckless treatment of the farmers with their land. The slogan "Wheat will win the war" and the ever increasing prices paid for wheat around the turn of the century - but especially since the First World War - had turned the Great Plains into a huge grain paradise. In the center of the Dust Bowl, only 3 percent wheat was grown in 1888, in 1930 "King Wheat" made up over 90 percent of the harvest. The fact that the huge combine harvesters, whose working width increased rapidly from three to over seven meters, quickly disintegrated or removed the thin soil of the prairie, bothered only a few of the farmers, almost a fifth of them in the 1930s - as speculators and suitcase farmers - had their main residence in the cities.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods as a result of the Dust Bowl disaster. From Oklahoma alone, 15 percent of the population emigrated to California. (Soon all Dust Bowl migrants, regardless of their origin, were being called "Okies"). Federal government aid programs, irrigation projects and the practice of sustainable forms of soil management could not completely contain the sandstorms on the prairie. However, they prevented a major disaster the size of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In the poems of Archibald McLeish, the photographs of Dorothea Lange, the ballads of Woody Guthrie (who was himself "Okie"), in John Steinbeck's grandiose novel "Fruits of Wrath", in the film of the same name by John Ford and in plays by Frank Galati The Dust Bowl lives on like no other natural disaster as a collective memory of Americans.

Christof Mauch, The 101 Most Important Questions. American history, C. H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2008, page 86



Second World War

As the signs of a renewed war became increasingly visible in Europe and Asia, the isolationist mood among the population increased further, and the predominantly similar-minded Congress passed several neutrality laws that considerably restricted the president's room for maneuver in foreign policy. According to a Gallup poll of September 1939, shortly after Hitler's attack on Poland, 84 percent of those questioned were against American intervention. Roosevelt also publicly declared himself neutral.

At the same time, however, national defense was prepared by a huge armaments program, the introduction of conscription and the establishment of a 300 to 1,000 mile wide security zone around the American continent. From November 1939, foreign powers were allowed to buy American weapons, and in the fall of 1940 the US acquired new military bases in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

In August 1941, Roosevelt had a secret meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off Newfoundland. The result was a declaration of common American-British principles - the "Atlantic Charter". It represented the right of peoples to self-determination, access to free world trade to improve the economic and social situation of peoples, freedom of the seas and the disarmament of aggressor states. In September 1941, Roosevelt ordered the protection of British ships by the US fleet, which provoked a military confrontation with Germany.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Nevertheless, the Japanese aircraft attack on the base of the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor / Hawaii on December 7, 1941 hit the USA completely by surprise. Over 2,400 US soldiers were killed and large parts of the fleet were destroyed.

Because of this "day of shame" the isolationist mood in the USA turned overnight. In contrast to the First World War, an overwhelming majority now supported the war against the Axis powers. The conflict forged the nation together, which immediately proceeded to mobilize its resources. About eleven percent of the total population did military service.

In a short time the United States was building the greatest war machine in history. In the period from 1939 to 1945 industrial production more than doubled. After winning the naval battle at the Midway Islands in early June 1942, the US Pacific Fleet managed to counterattack the Japanese. The allied China received military and material aid in the fight against the Japanese occupation.

The cooperation with Great Britain and a stable alliance with the Soviet Union were central to the further conduct of the war. In order to reduce the enormous losses suffered by the Soviets, a "second front" should be established as early as possible. Since an attack on the French Atlantic coast in 1942 was not yet feasible militarily, Roosevelt and Churchill decided to attack the German control area from the Mediterranean area. After the successful invasion of North Africa, they also agreed at the conference in Casablanca in January 1943 that Germany and Japan would only accept unconditional surrender.

Invasion of Normandy

At the same time, the time of an Allied invasion of France was set for 1944. After the mobilization and elimination of the German submarines in the Atlantic, the Allied landings in Normandy and the conquest of the heavily fortified coast succeeded on June 6, 1944 under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through Soviet successes in the east and the simultaneous advance of Allied troops in Italy and France, Germany was increasingly encircled. Roosevelt did not live to see the German surrender on May 8, 1945; he died on April 12, 1945. His successor, Vice President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), came to an agreement at the Potsdam Conference (July 17 to August 2, 1945 ), the last Allied summit, with Stalin and Churchill on the modalities of the occupation of Germany, which was to be divided into four zones and treated as an economic unit; the Soviet side promised to declare war on Japan. In the Pacific, the battle still raged relentlessly. When it became apparent to the US that Japan would not surrender without bitter resistance, they stepped up the bombing of mainland Japan; in the end, Truman decided to drop two atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), which killed hundreds of thousands of people. On August 14th, Japan surrendered and was occupied by American troops.