American Empire, 1865-1914


The expansionist and eventually imperialistic orientation of United States foreign policy after 1865 stemmed from the country's domestic situation. Those who led the internal expansion of the United States after the Civil War were also the architects of the nation's foreign policy. These national leaders, known collectively as the foreign policy elite, believed that extending American influence abroad would foster American prosperity, and they sought to use American foreign policy to open and safeguard foreign markets.

Many Americans harbored fears of the wider world, but the foreign policy elite realized that those fears could be alleviated if the world could be remade in the American image. Therefore, after the Civil War, these leaders advocated a nationalism based on the idea that Americans were a special people favored by God. Race-based arguments, gender-based arguments, and Social Darwinism were used to support the idea of American superiority and further the idea of expansion, and American missionaries went forth to convert the heathen. Furthermore, a combination of political, economic, and cultural factors in the 1890s prompted the foreign policy elite to move beyond support of mere economic expansion toward advocacy of an imperialistic course for the United States an imperialism characterized by a belief in the rightness of American society and American solutions.

The analysis of American expansionism serves as a backdrop for scrutiny of the American empire from the end of the Civil War to 1914. William H. Seward, as secretary of state from 1861 to 1869 and as a member of the foreign policy elite, was one of the chief architects of this empire. In examining Seward's expansionist vision and the extent to which it was realized by the late 1880s, we again see the relationship between domestic and foreign policy.

Acquisition of territories and markets abroad led the United States to heed the urgings of Captain Alfred T. Mahan and to embark on the building of the New Navy. The fleet gave the nation the means to protect America's international interests and to become more assertive, as in the Hawaiian, Venezuelan, and Cuban crises of the 1890s. The varied motives that led the United States into the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War offer another striking example of the complex links between domestic and foreign policy. In these crises of the 1890s, the American frame of reference toward peoples of other nations became more noticeable in the shaping of foreign policy. In the Cuban crisis, as in the Venezuelan crisis, Americans insisted that the United States would establish the rules for nations in the Western Hemisphere.

The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War, sparked a debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists over the course of American foreign policy. We examine the arguments of the two groups and the reasons for the defeat of the anti-imperialists.

In the last two sections of the chapter, we turn to the American empire in Asia and Latin America. The American frame of reference with regard to other ethnic groups, along with American political, economic, and social interests, led to U.S. oppression of the Filipinos and shaped the Open Door policy as well as relations with Japan. The same factors determined American relations with Latin America. But in Latin America, the United States used its power to impose its will and, through the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, assumed the role of an international police power.

A New Place in the World: 1865-1914

1866 Trans-Atlantic cable completed.

1867 United States purchases Alaska from Russia.

1868 Cuban nationalists launch war for independence.

1875 United States eliminates tariffs on Hawaiian sugar.

1887 United States acquires rights to use Pearl Harbor as a naval base.

1890 Alfred Thayer Mahan publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

1895 Venezuela Crisis.

1896 William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan for president. Spain sends troops to Cuba; launches reconcentrado policy.

1898 Explosion of the Maine and start of the Spanish-American War. Annexation of Hawaii. Anti-Imperialist League formed.

1899 Filipino nationalists declare war on the United States. Secretary of State John Hay sends his first "Open Door Note."

1900 Foraker Act declares Puerto Rico an "unincorporated territory" of the United States. China's Boxer Rebellion prompts Hay's second "Open Door Note." President McKinley wins reelection.

1901 Platt amendment grants Cuba independence, with strings attached. Supreme Court rules in the Insular Cases. Assassination of President McKinley; Teddy Roosevelt becomes president.

1902 Most Filipino rebels surrender to the United States.

1903 Panama declares independence.

1904 Senate approves construction of the Panama Canal. President Roosevelt issues the Roosevelt Corollary.

1905 President Roosevelt mediates the Russo-Japanese War.

1907 The "Gentlemen's Agreement" ends Japanese immigration to the United States.

1913 Completion of the Panama Canal.

1914 American forces occupy Vera Cruz, Mexico.

1915 United States sends marines into Haiti; occupation lasts until 1934.

1916 United States sends marines into the Dominican Republic. Punitive Expedition pursues Pancho Villa into Mexico.

1917 Puerto Ricans become citizens of the United States.

Globalization: During the 1890s, the United States became much more directly involved in world politics than it had been prior to that point. While the United States was never in a strict sense isolationist, seeking commercial and other opportunities abroad since the end of the American Revolution, the nation's leaders sought to remain aloof from political commitments abroad throughout the nineteenth century (preferring to focus on expansion across the North American continent). Washington's farewell address had urged Americans to avoid permanent political connections with Europe, but was less concerned with the dangers of commercial expansion. American foreign policy during the 1890s, influenced by a series of strategic, economic, and ideological motives, brought the country much more heavily into the realm of international affairs.

War and Diplomacy: American expansion during the 1890s brought the United States into a war with Spain, one that was successful militarily (largely as a result of Spain's military weakness), but that also exposed many of the underlying weaknesses of the American military and later spurred a series of reforms in an effort to modernize the nation's military establishment. The United States also fought a bloody but lesser-known conflict against the Philippines between 1898 and 1902 in an effort to bring those islands under American control.

Politics and Citizenship: American expansion played a role in the growth of the modern state and helped to change the political experience that many Americans underwent. As the United States undertook new international responsibilities, the role of the government naturally began to expand (although this was a slow and halting process, significant elements existed in ,the 1890s). President William McKinley, once seen as a relatively weak leader, helped to set in motion the creation of the modern presidency. The media played an important role in shaping public opinion on foreign policy and other issues, as more and more Americans had access to newspapers and magazines.

American Identity: The 1890s helped to change significantly both domestic and foreign views of the American national character. The United States had long prided itself on its ability to remain aloof from world affairs and from the selfish imperialism of the European powers. Territorial acquisitions in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and indirect control over Cuba transformed the United States into an imperial republic. This would have far-reaching implications for America's world role throughout the rest of the twentieth century. A wide-ranging debate over the implications of this course divided the nation and foreshadowed the debates over World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. McKinley's reelection in 1900 was considered by many to be a mandate from the American people in support of United States imperialism.

Digital History

American Becomes a World Power
During the 1890s, the United States showed little interest in foreign affairs. Its army, with just 28,000 soldiers, was one-twentieth the size of France's or Germany's. Its 10,000-man navy was a sixth the size of Britain's and half the size of Spain's. Toward the end of the 19th century, interest in foreign affairs mounted. Some worried that the United States was being left behind in the scramble for territory, markets, raw materials, and outlets for investment. Others, such as the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, believed that national prosperity depended on control of sea lanes. Still others believed that the United States had a special mission to uplift backwards peoples. Beginning in the late 1880s, a new assertiveness characterized American foreign policy, evident in disputes with Germany, Chile, and Britain. In 1893, Americans in Hawaii forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate; the United States annexed Hawaii five years later. War with Spain in 1898 led to the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, where the United States confronted a two-year insurrection. Fear that the United States was being shut out of trade with China led Secretary of State John Hay to issue the 1899 Open Door Note. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the United States would exercise international police power in the Western Hemisphere. The United States assisted Panama in securing its independence from Columbia in order to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The U.S. occupied Nicaragua for 20 years, Haiti for 19 years, and the Dominican Republic for 8 years.

Lecture Outlines

The Spanish American War


The United States and the Caribbean 1877-1920

The War Against Spain in the Philippines 1898

The Open Door Policy: the U.S. and China