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The United States and Expansionism Abroad, 1814-1920

© 2002 by Donald J. Mabry

From the Peace of Ghent in 1814 until almost the end of the century, the United States did not get involved in European or Asian affairs. It was able to do so because the British fleet protected the United States; the European balance of power kept European nations busy with each other; and the US had a growing potential for resistance. For example, the United States Army in 1865 was one of the most formidable in the Western world, having just been battle-hardened. Most Americans did not understand why they were so favored. Probably few thought about it; they were too busy living day to day. Some of those who did believed that the United States was divinely created and inspired.

What interest there was in foreign affairs in the 19th century can be summarized quickly. They wanted to acquire their neighbors' land either by purchase or theft. Sometimes the purchase was disguised so the seller could save face, as in the acquisition of East Florida by the Adams-Onís Treaty. West Florida had simply been taken in two moves. There was interest in trade with the Far East. US warships forced Japan to open itself to the outside world and US merchants salivated at the idea of trade with heavily-populated China. Although the US did almost nothing about it, there was sympathy for independent republican governments. After all, the US wanted company in its choice of being a liberal government. Throughout the century, defying the British Empire, twisting the British Lion's tale, was a sure vote-getter, for they were the national arch-enemy.

In the 1890s, that changed because circumstances changed. With industrialization, the US needed raw materials and more places to sell its industrial products. The traditional idea that God had destined the US to rule the continent or, at least, as much as it could grab, spilled over into acquiring land separated from the US by a sea. Some of this was simply racism, the false belief that the US was white and had an obligation to "civilize" the "colored" people in the world. Also, there were a group of very influential men who argued that the US must expand or die. Alfred Thayer Mahan influenced countless number of people with such books as his The Influence of Seapower in History. Republican Party leaders Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt were disciples of Mahan. They also believed in the racism ideas as well. The US became an imperialist power because it could. The European balance of power was shifting as newly-united Germany sought its place in the sun and the United Kingdom, France, and others powers resisted. This jockeying for position created power vacuums, some of which the US filled. Industrialization was making the US into a great power. Its population was large enough to supply big armies and very talented because it not only drew upon the natives but also received millions of immigrants.

The US, a nation which sought to annex territory since its beginning, had long been inching its way into overseas adventures. It bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 and acquired Midway Island in the Pacific as a refueling station. It sought bases in the Caribbean. President grant signed a treaty annexing the Dominican republic in 1868 but the US Senate balked. When some Cubans fought the Ten Years' War in a futile attempt to eject the Spanish, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish worked hard to keep the US from getting involved. The inclination was there. James G. Blaine launched the Pan-American movement in an effort to bring Latin America into the US fold. In 1891, he threatened Chile but had to back down when it was pointed out that the Chilean navy was bigger than that of the US. But he was cheered at first. In 1880, the US got Pago Pago, Somoa and, in 1889, the US partitioned the Samoan Island with the United Kingdom and Germany. And then there was Hawaii. It had been ruled by a native monarchy but, in 1893, some settlers, mostly from the US and mostly sugar planters, revolted and declared independence. They asked to be annexed to the US. The US landed marines and President Benjamin Harrison sent a treaty of annexation to the Senate, which delayed ratification. President Grover Cleveland refused because it was so apparent that they did not represent the people and the revolt was ridden with corruption.

In 1895, the US stuck its nose into a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain. No one cared where the precise boundary was between Venezuela and British Guyana for the land was virtually empty of people and there was nothing valuable there, that anyone knew about. The discovery of gold changed things, of course. Both countries asserted that the gold fields were on their side of the line! Britain was the stronger of the two but it had global concerns. It is impossible to determine what would have happened if the US had not decided to get involved. For the US to get involved was a violation of the Monroe Doctrine but almost no one paid attention to the Doctrine. The US tried to force the British to back down. Britain ignored the US. Eventually, for reasons of its own, Britain would submit the issue to arbitration. The US had asserted that it had the right to determine what happened in the Western hemisphere, a departure.

Cuban-Spanish-American War

The effort to throw the Spanish out was a long struggle. There were constant conspiracies on the part of Cubans to free themselves of Spain. The effort called the Ten Years' War (1868-78) had failed but a new war for independence began in 1895. From New York, Tomás Estrada Palma, José Marti (who would be martyred), and others landed in Cuba to join compatriots who had already begun to fight the Spanish. By necessity, the insurrectionists had to use guerrilla tactics, for the Spanish army, reinforced from the mother country, was too strong. Through hit-and-run tactics, sabotage, selective murders, and persistence, they hoped to wear the Spanish down and cause them to give up. the Spanish, under the leadership of General Valierano Weyler fought the guerrillas by trying to isolate them and cut off their support. Using a tactic which would used by the United States in the Vietnam War, he tried to pacify the countryside by moving populations out of a sector so that only guerrillas and their supporters would be left and then the army could defeat them. The populations were reconcentrated into camps. US citizens had little interest in Cuba until the Cuban Civil War began in 1895. The Spanish concentration camps aroused attention. In them, disease was rampant and many died. The US tends to have sympathy for the underdog. Moreover, it had traditional anti-Spanish views inherited from the English. The "Yellow Journalists" (the sensationalist press led by Hearst and Pulitzer) fed the anti-Spanish, pro-interventionist sentiment.


When revolt began in 1895, President Grover Cleveland declared US neutrality but he faced a clique of Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune and Albert Shaw of the Review of Reviews who wanted to intervene Cuba and annex Hawaii. In 1896, Congress passed a resolution recognizing belligerency. Richard Olney, Secretary of State, made it clear to Spain that the US considered its interests in Cuba jeopardized by continuance of war. There were also economic and strategic groups in the US who had an interest in Cuba. Besides, the Navy was getting to the point of being able to fight the Spanish. The naval appropriations bills in 1870s and 1880s showed the buildup in strength.

US economic interests were not much even by the standards of the day. In 1895, US-Cuban trade was about $100 million a year. US investment in Cuba was about $50 million, mostly in sugar and iron but some in mining and tobacco. Some thought only $30 million. Neither was high enough to justify intervention (except, of course, if it were your money). The US business community was generally opposed the intervention. But Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal pounded away at the US citizenry until the latter began demanding that the US intervene to save the Cubans from the dirty, nasty Spaniards, ignoring the fact that the Cubans were committing at least as many atrocities.

The Spanish ambassador to the United States, de Lome, sent a private letter to his friend, the editor of the Madrid Herald, who was visiting Cuba, in which he wrote "McKinley [is] weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd." He made other derogatory comments, most of which McKinley's opposition would have agreed with. The letter was stolen by a clerk in the Havana post office and sent to rebels who then sent it to the Journal. The newspaper published it in February, 1898, not pointing out that the letter was private and stolen and not Spanish policy. Instead, the Journal was trying to inflame passions, which it did. De Lome resigned before publication but that did not stop the newspaper. His resignation removed from the scene the patient, skilful, and tireless de Lome.

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up Havana harbor. It had been there for 3 weeks, having been sent in case US citizens had to be rescued and as an act of intimidation towards the Spanish government. Unfortunately, 266 died in the explosion. The Spanish government expressed regret at the accident. Investigations indicated that the Spanish government was not responsible and common sense said that it would not be so stupid as to have done it. The rebels gained from the explosion but the best evidence suggests that it was an accident caused by one or more US sailors. The US press, however, said it was an act of treachery on the part of Spain.

The governments of Spain and the United States were not so easily swayed and had continued to seek a diplomatic solution. By March 27th, one day before the report on the Maine explosion was made public, the US minister to Spain was asked to find out (1) if Spain would grant a six months armistice to the rebels, (2) whether Spain would revoke the reconcentration order at once, allow Cubans to go home, and work with the US to supply them until they could get back on their feet, and (3) whether Spain would allow the US to be the final arbiter if peace were not achieved by October 1st. Spain agreed to revoke the reconcentration order and, on April 9th, agreed to suspend hostilities. In essence, the US demands had been met. That should have ended the matter.

Congress, however, wanted war, and, on April 11, 1898, McKinley accommodated. On April 19, Congress declared Cuba independent, demanded that Spain withdraw, and and directed and empowered the US president to fight a war if Spain refused to fold. The declaration of war was softened by the Teller Amendment which promised that the US would not annex any territory gained from the war. By April 25th, Congress declared that a state of war existed.

The war did not last the year. The US attacked the Spanish Philippines and then Cuba. The Spanish fleet was defeated and Spanish ground troops on the island had to give up. Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico became US protectorates and the US paid Spain $20 million, in essence hush money. The Cuban generals who had been fighting the war for independence were shoved aside. The US was determined to do what it wanted.

There was a tremendous debate in Congress over imperialism, particularly about annexing the Philippines. The Anti-Imperialist League led the fight but to no avail. William Jennings Bryan made imperialism as issue in the 1900 presidential elections but President McKinley was easily reelected.

Filipinos did not want to be part of the United States; they wanted independence. They declared independence and Emilio Aguinaldo was named president. The US, which had taken Manila Bay in the war, was now faced with fierce fighting led by Aguinaldo. He surrendered in 1901 but fighting continued sporadically until 1902.

The US issued its famous "Open Door Notes" regarding access to China by the imperialist powers; instigated the Panamanian independence movement so it could gain the right to finish the construction of the canal the French had started; intervened militarily in Cuba to control local politics; set up military dictatorships in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and invaded Mexico twice. All before 1920.

US overseas expansion and intervention tended, however, to be in the Circum-Caribbean area.