U.S. Expansionism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States pursued an aggressive policy of expansionism, extending its political and economic influence around the globe. That pivotal era in the history of our nation is the subject of this on-line history.


Through the course of history, many of the nations in the world expanded internationally through imperialism. These nations were creating empires throughout the world. The United States of America for example, during the late 19th century and into the early 20th century began to expand out into the world. Before this time, the United States only expanded onto land that was adjacent to that which was theirs.
As a result from the other world powers acquiring new lands and provinces, the U.S. felt pressured into this new imperialism. Early U.S. expansionism occurred when U.S. Secretary of State, William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Following this in 1875, the U.S. made several treaties with Hawaii and eventually acquiring it. These early acts of expansionism by the U.S. were peaceful attempts to acquire new lands.

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The first act of U.S. imperialistic intervention occurred by Spanish mistreatment of the Cubans. Theodore Roosevelt stated, ” Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in general loosening of the ties of civilized society may ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation” After several incidents with the Spanish, President McKinley and Congress declared war on the Spanish. The Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War and granted Cuba its independence. Although Cuba gained its independence, the U.S. acquired many benefits in Cuba including a military base.
The Treaty of Paris also granted the U.S. control over the Philippine islands. As Americans were sympathetic toward the Cubans, many were outraged by the treatment the U.S. gave the Filipinos. These islands not only gave the U.S. strategic military bases but also key economic trading posts. Many American citizens including ones like Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain believed that Filipino-American War was unnecessary and was full of hypocrisies. At the platform of the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1899, someone said, ” Much as we abhor the war of ‘criminal aggression’ in the Philippines, greatly as we regret that the blood of the Filipinos is on American hands, we more deeply resent the betrayal of American institutions at home” While many argued imperialism in the Philippines, others stated that the Philippines should be a part of the U.S. to encourage trade with the Pacific. “Our largest trade henceforth must be with Asia. The Pacific is our ocean” (Senator Albert J. Beveridge).


In 1914, in the country of Panama, one of the most well known results from U.S. expansionism was finished. The result was to be known as the Panama Canal. This canal linked the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Theodore Roosevelt was the U.S. President that dreamed up this idea and made it happen. The Panama Canal brought great economic benefits to the U.S. Even though the canal was located in Panama, the U.S. was the operator and creator of it. Roosevelt acquired the land for the canal through the Hay and Bunau-Varilla Treaty.


Through the acquisition of the Philippine islands, U.S. trade to the Orient increased dramatically. China soon became a commercial interest to the United States. Before the U.S. became involved with China, other nations were already exploiting her because of the weak Manchu dynasty. Since the U.S. had policies with many other nations, Secretary of State John Hay created the Open Door notes of 1899-1900. These documents declared that all nations have equal trading policies to China and to respect the “territorial and administrative integrity” of China.


This open door policy is best illustrated in 1900 by a source called “American Diplomacy.” It had Uncle Sam leaning on a key to the open doors of China. Inscribed on the key was “American Diplomacy.” Outside the doors though were many diplomats from different countries wanting to go in to China and commence their business endeavors.


These events illustrate how the United States became involved in the imperialism throughout the world. Before this though, the United States’ expansionism was limited only to what was adjacent to the nation. They only expanded to the West. After all the land was annexed into the U.S., there was nowhere else to expand to. With an increasing population and pressure from other countries to expand internationally, the U.S. eventually expanded to other lands. This was a departure from how the U.S. originally expanded.


The United States continued to a nation that was constantly expanding. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries though, expansionism grew dramatically. Imperialism became a competition between nations to see which nation would be the strongest. As Josiah Strong put it in 1885, “the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest.'”
U.S Expansionism
The United States has always been involved in foreign affairs but the degree of involvement has changed over time. After the War of 1812, those involved in foreign commerce sought peaceful negotiations with trading partners but others looked inward, seeing national development as providing the greatest economic opportunity. In the 1850s this began to change. Interest in strategic ports of call and shorter routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans prompted diplomats to negotiate with foreign powers over access to routes and trade. Thus the United States began to change its foreign policy from one of isolationism, avoiding involvement with other countries, to one of imperialism or expansionism, seeking control of foreign trade to bolster the domestic economy.
The effort to expand into foreign markets caused American diplomats to “look outward” in the 1890s. Islands in the South Pacific including Hawaii were important depots for ocean-going trade and military vessels. The perception of unfair treatment of the inhabitants of Cuba and the Philippines, two colonies of Spain, led to the Spanish-American War (1898). The territory secured in the treaty ending the “splendid little war” angered those who opposed imperialism. Regardless, U.S. officials continued to seek foreign markets and to support American investment abroad.


Trade with China began in 1784. In an effort to protect that trade, Secretary of State John Hay opposed the increase of British, German, Russia, French, and Japanese trade with China because of the competition it posed to American interests. He wrote letters to these governments requesting that they support an Open Door Policy in China (1899-1900). His policy stated that all nations would have equal trading rights in China. Many of these countries participated in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, an uprising of Chinese against foreign influences including business and missionary interests. Japan was another country strategically positioned as a supply stop for American trading and whaling vessels. Efforts to open it to foreign trade began in the 1850s.


Securing a passage through Central America to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans also affected U.S. foreign policy beginning in the 1850s. Latin American relations involved negotiations with imperial powers controlling Latin American countries as well as the governments of countries which gained their independence. Dollar Diplomacy was a policy adopted by President Howard Taft (who served from 1909-1913) to encourage investment by American banks and businesses in Latin America. He promised military protection to those who invested. World War I reoriented the priorities of the emerging world power and U.S. foreign policy makers returned to a goal of isolationism.


Notes: A Force in the World (1880 – 1910)
An Age of Imperialism: During the late 19th and early 20th century, powerful European nations, such as, Great Britain and France, were expanding their empires, especially in Africa and Asia. Some U.S. leaders, such as, Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, believed that the U.S. should also compete to gain power overseas.
Ideas which Influence U.S. Expansionism: The idea of Social Darwinism (“the survival of the fittest”) which was expressed by several prominent American leaders prompted the U.S. to be more aggressive in its foreign policy. Josiah Strong, a Congregationalist minister, preached that the Anglo-Saxon race (people of English ancestry) were to “prepare the way for the full coming of His kingdom on the earth.” British poet Rudyard Kipling b believed that white people had a duty to civilize and Christianize the “backward” peoples of the world — this was the “white man’s burden.” Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote an influential book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. In this book, he insisted that the U.S. develop a strong merchant marine and a powerful navy. All of these ideas prompted the U.S. to become more powerful and aggressive in foreign affairs.
American Style Imperialism: Although some American leaders wanted the U.S. to take over all of North and even South America, most Americans were against imperialism. After all, we were once colonies ourselves. However, the U.S. was becoming an economic power. We did want to trade with other countries. Our economic interests drew us into world affairs.
Imperialism: The exerting of control over one nation by another nation. In the classical definition of imperialism, the mother country establishes and controls colonies which help make the mother country powerful.
Samoa: These islands located in the South Pacific on the way to Australia were popular resting places for whaling and fishing ships. American ships refueled there. The port of Pago was used as a coaling station. In 1889, Samoa agreed to allow Britain, Germany and the U.S. to set up protectorates over Samoa. Britain withdrew from the agreement and the U.S. and Germany divided up the islands.
Protectorate: An arrangement where a nation agrees to allow itself to be partially controlled by another nation in exchange for protection. For example, Samoa agreed that the U.S. could refuel its ships in Samoan ports. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to protect Samoa in the event of war.
Hawaii: The U.S. began trading with Hawaii as early as the 1780s. In the 1820s American missionaries began to settle in Hawaii to spread Christianity. Their descendants bought large amounts of land which they turned into cattle ranches and sugar plantations. Close economic ties with the U.S. developed. In 1875, a treaty eliminated the import duties on Hawaiian sugar. In 1887, Hawaii gave the U.S. use of Pearl Harbor naval base. In 1890, the U.S. passed a tariff on Hawaiian sugar. Queen Liliuokalani took the throne in 1891. She advocated a strong nationalist policy. The sugar planters struck back — they wanted the U.S. to annex Hawaii. Grover Cleveland, the U.S. President, refused. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the strategic value of Hawaii became clear. Congress agreed to annex Hawaii. Hawaii was an American territory until it became the 50th state in 1960.
Background — The Spanish-American War (1898): Cuba was one of Spain’s oldest colonies. Hard economic times led to revolts in 1868 and 1895. Cuban rebels brought a guerrilla war against the Spanish. Several attacks were made against U.S. owned sugar plantations in the hope that the U.S. would join the rebellion. This did not happen. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer owned competing newspaper empires. They tried to outdo each other by writing sensationalistic and oftentimes untrue stories about the Spanish. They tried to aroused U.S. public opinion against Spain. Some U.S. leaders, such as Theodore Roosevelt, also joined the bandwagon.
Two events heightened the war fever in the U.S. One, a letter by a Spanish government minister was stolen and published in U.S. newspapers. It describe U.S. President McKinley as “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” Although the Spanish government apologized and the minister resigned, Americans were still outraged about the insult to their nation and President. The other, was the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. This battleship was in Havana harbor. A total of 260 U.S. sailors were killed. Although Spain agreed to an armistice in Cuba, U.S. newspapers manipulated public opinion so that U.S. citizens demanded a war. Congress declared war and passed the Teller Amendment at the same time.
The Teller Amendment: This amendment stated that once the war was over and Cuba independent, the U.S. would “leave control of the island to its people.”
Victory in Manilla: The first battle was not in Cuba, but in the Philippines. U.S. commander George Dewey and his fleet sunk the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. U.S. forces and Filipinos under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo defeated the Spanish in August 1898.
Fighting in Cuba: The U.S. encountered stiff resistance near Santiago, Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt and his rough riders became war heroes for their charge up San Juan Hill. However, the Tenth Negro Cavalry led by John Pershing deserved much credit for the victory.
Puerto Rico: After the Spanish were defeated in Cuba, the U.S. captured Puerto Rico.
Anti-Imperialist League: Debate raged after the Spanish-American War. Some Americans wanted the U.S. to establish colonies in the Philippines and Cuba. Others believed that it was anti-American and costly as well. Opponents formed the Anti-Imperialist League. Prominent members included Carl Schurz, Mark Twain, Jane Addams and Samuel Gompers.
The Filipino Uprising: The American imperialists narrowly defeated the anti-imperialists in the debate over the Philippines. Therefore, the Philippines became a U.S. territory in 1899. Filipino nationalists under Aguinaldo became angry and used similar guerrilla tactics against the U.S. that Cubans had used against Spain. A nasty war ensued. More than 7,000 Americans and 220,000 Filipinos died in the war between the Filipinos and the Americans. In 1934, America agreed to grant the Filipinos their independence in 1944. Because of World War II, Filipino independence was delayed until July 4, 1946.
Cuba: Cuba was ravaged by the war. According to the Teller Amendment, Cuba was to be independent. However, they were in a very weakened state and the U.S. did not want to give up its influence. So Congress passed the Platt Amendment which gave the U.S. the right to interfere in Cuban affairs, if necessary, “for protection of life, property, and individual liberty.” It also gave the U.S. permission to establish a naval base which we still have, Guantanamo Bay. Cubans opposed this interference but could do nothing about it.
Puerto Rico: Puerto Ricans became better off as a result of the American involvement. Still, they were concerned about American control. In 1900, the Foraker amendment gave Puerto Rico a form of self-government. the Jones Act of 1971, gave Puerto Ricans U.s. citizenship with the right to elect their leaders. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth under U.S. protection.
China: The U.S. began trade with China in the late 1700s. we imported tea and silks, and exported furs. During the Industrial Revolution, many thousands of Chinese workers came here. Thousands worked on the railroads in the American west. In 1882, California passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. This is the first time that the U.S. barred immigration based on racial/ethnic basis. In 1902, Congress barred all Chinese immigration.
The Open Door Policy: European nations and Japan were busy colonizing Africa and Asia. The U.S. wanted to trade with China and opposed colonization of that nation by other nations. This was called the Open Door policy. The Open Door policy prevailed.
The Boxer Rebellion: In 1900, some Chinese nationalists known as the Boxers demanded that all foreigners leave China. They resented foreign influence in their country. The Boxers attacked foreigners. These included Americans, Japanese, British, French and other nationalities. The Boxer rebellion was defeated and the Chinese were forced to pay reparations — money for damages.
Japan: In 1854, Admiral Matthew Perry, U.S. Navy made an agreement with Japan to allow trade. During the 1800s, many Japanese settled in Hawaii. When the annexed Hawaii in 1898, many Japanese moved to California. Tensions between Japanese and European descendants in California developed in much the same way as between Chinese and European-Americans. European-Americans believed that Chinese and Japanese were taking their jobs and decreasing wages. In 1907-1908, there was a movement to place Japanese, Chinese and Korean children in San Francisco in separate Oriental Schools. Asians resisted this idea. A Gentleman’s Agreement between San Francisco politicians and Japanese leaders allowed for integration of schools, as long as, the Japanese agreed to a much restricted immigration.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904): Russia and Japan competed over Korea and Manchuria. Japan who had modern weapons succeeded in winning several battles but was not able to totally drive Russia out of the area. Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate. The combatants agreed. Both nations agreed to withdraw from Manchuria. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The Greet White Fleet: In 1907, President Roosevelt had a fleet of sixteen battleships (all painted white) cruise the around the world and visit many ports. This impressed many nations that the U.S. was indeed powerful.

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