An Overview of American Imperialism
Before we just jump into imperialism, we need first need to understand a few things.
Manifest Destiny – This term was coined to describe a philosophy that began in the early 1800s. Many leaders argued that the United States would inevitably span from one ocean (Atlantic) to another (Pacific). That’s why Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the west; it was, among other things, part of an agenda and PR campaign to popularize this expansionist view.
International Reputation – America was still competing with Britain. American leaders were still very much aware that the US was the new kid on the block of world powers. They had just had it out with Britain again during the War of 1812 and were desperate to prove to the world that America was here to stay.
Growing Population and Economy – The American population growth rate was astronomical at this point in time, more than doubling in the 30 years from 1790 to 1820. The booming economy and workforce provided even more incentive for not only westward growth but global growth as well. The industrial revolution which began in the second half of the 19th century only made this more necessary in the eyes of many.
So, now that we’ve laid a foundation for American imperialism, let’s actually talk about it!
First, a timeline:
1845 – Polk reasserts in Oregon and Texas; O’Sullivan coins “Manifest Destiny”
1848 – President Polk offered to buy Cuba from Spain for $100 million
1856 – Guano Act of 1856 (Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island)
1867 – Midway Islands
1890 – McKinley Tariff; Admiral Mahan publishes book on needs for strong navy, inspires T.R.
1893 – Hawaiian Queen overthrown
1898 – USS Maine sunk; Spanish American War begins (Hawaii Annexed); Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam
1899 – American Samoa and Wake Island annexed
1901 – Teddy becomes president
1903 – Panama seceded from Colombia
1907 – Great White Fleet
1914 – Panama Canal
1917 – Virgin Islands annexed
So, American power was growing. They had a navy that rivaled that of Britain’s fleet. They declared many uninhabited, as well as inhabited, islands territory of the US. They also influenced international treaties and handily put former European powers in their place… (take that, Spain). But what was really gained from all of this? For America, international respect, new global markets for trade, and territorial expansion, a continuation of Manifest Destiny. What did the world get out of this? Well, American products being shipped around the world gave new people access to goods they had not yet had, but, perhaps most importantly was the draw of America to those people. Immigration skyrocketed during the turn of the 20th century, as people hoping to escape poverty, disease, oppression, and more, flocked to the US.
American leadership found their rise amongst the world powers a confirmation of their philosophy and right to expand, as was usually the attitude in the preceding centuries. However, toward the end of the 19th Century, voices of a different opinion grew louder. Some argued that it was wrong to declare American control over territories over which protection of the Constitution would not extend. Proponents of imperialism often asserted that American control would only benefit these small countries or territories and that beating other, less generous imperial powers was of the essence. People like Alfred Thayer Mahan, an Admiral, held this position for he believed that the U.S. economy would soon need additional outlets for the massive amounts of industrial and commercial goods being made in the States. Mahan considered that guaranteeing access to these new international markets was vital to America’s continued growth.
The realization of this policy came with Theodore Roosevelt forcefully intervening in Latin America to protect trade interests. This became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, which President Taft followed up with Dollar Diplomacy, the goal of which was to create stability abroad, and, through this stability, promote American commercial interests:
“The tremendous growth of the export trade of the United States has already made that trade a very real factor in the industrial and commercial prosperity of the country. With the development of our industries, the foreign commerce of the United States must rapidly become a still more essential factor in its economic welfare. The diplomacy of the present administration has sought to respond to modern ideas of commercial intercourse. This policy has been characterized as substituting dollars for bullets.” -Taft
So, American power was exerted internationally, which became a problem during World War I. Woodrow Wilson greatly desired to remain neutral during the European conflict. This became an issue when Germany attempted to convince Mexico to turn on the US. This revealed the difficulty of being engaged in international commerce. When something big went wrong abroad, it would be impossible to avoid. This greatly reduced the desire of American leaders to annex small nations around the world, but not so much that it ended American international involvement, which would actually escalate in the following years, with World War II and the Cold War.
Thanks for watching this intro to American imperialism. Until next time, happy studying!