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American History II


The United States Becomes an Empire

            Three general propositions form the foundation for most discussions about war and foreign policy in history and political science courses in colleges today. The first is that war is the extension of a nation's diplomacy by other than peaceful means. The second is that no matter why a nation enters a war, that war itself changes the relationship of its citizens with each other and with the national government. (For example, look at the changes that the Vietnam War brought about in these areas.) The third is that the rhetoric justifying or opposing a war reveals a great deal about the way a nation thinks about itself.

            Historians have different and opposing interpretations about America's involvement in world affairs in the years after the Civil War. The major positions taken are generally as follows:

1. Before 1898, America was isolationist, following George Washington's advice to avoid entangling alliances.
2. After the Civil War, America was expansionist, extending its "Manifest Destiny" idea outside the United States as it sought new markets and other benefits of colonies.
3. America was isolationist in theory, as evidenced by the political rhetoric of the 19th century, but expansionist in practice, as evidenced by its actual behavior in international affairs and its territorial and colonial acquisitions.
            These differing interpretations are largely dependent on what evidence one looks at and whether one looks at it from an isolationist or an expansionist point of view:  Those who argue that America was basically isolationist before 1898 say that these domestic concerns such as industrial growth, western settlement and new domestic roles for the federal government prevented the U.S. from becoming involved in foreign affairs. They argue that the nation's energies could not be spent on involvement with other nations.

            In his Farewell Address, George Washington had warned the nation he had helped to found and the government he had led not to get involved in entangling alliances with foreign countries. He and many subsequent presidents had seen how such alliances could drag countries into wars and cause them to deplete resources in pursuit of others' goals. Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was President from1885 to1889 and again from 1893 to1897. In his inaugural address in 1885, he summed up America's isolationist doctrine as "A policy of peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none."

            But others argue that the United States was expansionist precisely because industrial expansion, western settlement, and the growth of the national government all worked together to cause the U.S. to extend its interests beyond its own borders.

            From 1865 to1890, the industrial complex of the U.S. expanded rapidly, making it one of the two greatest industrial powers of the world (the other being Great Britain). American industrialists actively sought new markets in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Four aspects of industrial expansions also affected imperialist tendencies:

1. Business cycles, the alternating cycles of prosperity and recession (and even economic depressions in1873 and 1893), meant that production of goods often exceeded what Americans alone could consume.
2. Between the late 1860s and the turn of the century, foreign concerns invested some $3 billion in the U.S. economy.
3. Businesses such as the trusts that were developing wanted to expand still further.
4. There had been a shift in balance of trade, the balance between exports and imports. For example, Standard Oil had few petroleum exports in 1880, but controlled 70% of the world market in oil by 1890.
            As was noted in an earlier lecture, many farmers settled and tilled more and more land in the West, in part, because they believed there were virtually unlimited international markets for their products. They were wrong. As European demand for U.S. agricultural surplus declined from 1880 on, farmers had to seek new markets in order to survive.

            The United States had always had a love-hate relationship with government policy-making on economic matters. Such measures as the Bank of the United States (BUS), various tariffs, and various internal improvements packages before the Civil War had been difficult to sell to both legislators and the public. The destruction of the BUS, elimination of some tariffs, and vetoes of some measures were popular actions. But increasingly after the Civil War, the federal government made policies on economic matters, such as tariffs and currency reform.  Industrialists and farmers alike turned to the federal government for help in securing new markets.

            William Everetts was Secretary of State from 1877 to1881. In his "Report Upon the Commercial Relations of the United States," Everetts argued that the government should support a policy of economic growth. He revitalized the consular service, a branch of the diplomatic corps concerned primarily with trade, and appointed successful businessmen as consuls to represent America's interests in foreign countries. What has come to be called the "pork diplomacy" of the 1880s demonstrates the growing similarity between business and government interests. During the 1870s American farmers raising more and more hogs and exporting their surplus pork to Europe. But in the 1880s, because of protests from French and German farmers, France and various German states imposed restrictions on the importation of American pork. American farmers and businessmen were absolutely livid and lobbied the U.S. government to bring economic reprisals against the German states and France.

            After the Civil War, the pace of American Christian missionary activity increased tremendously, especially in Asia and Africa. While that might seem like something unimportant to the development of American imperialism, in fact, it proved to be very significant. With the American frontier nearing closure, Americans turned their idea of  "Manifest Destiny" into an international duty to uplift and Christianize those in the non-Christian world (populated by peoples already being labeled "inferiors" by social Darwinists and eugenicists).  President McKinley even referred to this nation's duty to "uplift and Christianize" others during his speech on the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands.  Robert E. Spear, the head of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, in one of his speeches, claimed that "The civilized nations are beginning to perceive that they have a duty, which is often contemptuously spoken of, to police the world. The recognition of this duty has been forced by trade."   The thesis that Anglo-European nations, including the United States, had a duty to "uplift and Christianize" those in other parts of the world is sometimes referred to as "the White Man's Burden"  in discussions of ideologies and attitudes making a difference in American policies in the late 1800s.

            As American missionaries fanned out into new territories, they provided important first-hand accounts of the areas in which they served, describing the people, their possessions and lifestyles, and the local resources. These often served as a source of valuable information about potential markets and new ways to make profits. Some missionary families even became involved in business in the colonies, for example, the Dole family in Hawaii. Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) had published The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1893. Turner's work had enormous influence on his fellow college professor Woodrow Wilson, later to become president of the United States. As your text notes in an earlier chapter, the Turner Thesis, argues that interaction with the frontier promoted democracy in America. But Turner also argued that the frontier was, by the time he published, closed-effectively obliterated by settlement throughout the West. Many Americans came to feel that the same benefits would also accrue to foreign countries in which Americans engaged in economic development activities. This idea dovetailed quite nicely with the religious motives.

            Because the United States government had a longstanding policy of protecting its citizens who were abroad, the increase in the number of missionaries and expansion of the number of territories in which they served necessitated an expansion of the treaty arrangements made with the governments controlling theses territories and also an increase in the number of American diplomatic and military personnel available to protect them.  (The Sand Pebbles was both a book and a movie about a U. S. naval vessel on a mission to evacuate missionaries from China during an attempted revolution there.)

            Two other ideas concerning the military, especially the Navy, also dovetailed with the notion that a stronger naval presence abroad was needed. One was put forth by William Hunt, Secretary of the Navy. Reconstruction and rebuilding infrastructure had taken a lot of federal dollars. By the 1880s, the Navy was in a shambles and badly deteriorated. Recovery from the Panic of 1873 and the end of Reconstruction had created the funds with which to re-build the Navy. Hunt and others sold the nation on rebuilding the Navy as a source of national pride and as a necessity for protecting trade should trade rivalries lead to military confrontation. So effective were they in building support for expanding the Navy that even Midwestern Populists, obviously landlocked, boarded the bandwagon of support.

            A second notion about the potential peaceful uses of naval power was advanced by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, a respected naval strategist and military historian. Mahan (1840-1914) believed strongly in the power of modern weapons to prevent war and advocated a strong Navy as a peace-keeping instrument using the following basis:

Surplus production requires commercial colonies and a large merchant fleet to transport goods. Oceans should be highways, not barriers. No nation can become or remain a first-class power without free access to and use of the oceanic highways. Policing and protecting oceanic highways is a task that only naval vessels can perform. Therefore, a powerful navy is essential for commerce.
Mahan was a close friend and colleague of  Theodore Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897 and 1898.  Roosevelt would become President in 1901 and continue in office until March of 1909.  Mahan's ideas appealed to the expansionist ideas of not only Roosevelt and American political leaders such as the powerful Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator Albert J. Beveridge, but also of foreign leaders including Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm.

            Beveridge, an historian as well as Senator from Indiana, summarized the two ideas of duty and destiny as motives for imperialism well in his1898 speech "The March of the Flag:"

Will you remember today, that we but do what our fathers did. We but pitch the tents of liberty further westward, further southward. We only continue the march of the flag. The question is not an American question but a world question. Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign? The opposition to expansion tells us we ought not to govern a people without their consent. I answer that the rule of liberty applies only to those who are capable of self-government. Do we owe no duty to the world? Wonderfully has God guided us. It is ours to set the world its example of right and honor. We cannot fly from our world duties. It is ours to execute the purpose of a fate that has driven us to be greater than our small intentions. We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil for liberty and civilization. For liberty and civilization and God's promises fulfilled, the flag must henceforth be the symbol and the sign to all mankind.
Note in this excerpt how the underlying assumptions drawn from social Darwinism, an amazingly arrogant American ethnocentrism, Manifest Destiny, and the White Man's Burden are all drawn together as justifications for American imperialism with no mention of motives like enriching American industrialists by doing on other continents and to other peoples what we had done to the American Indians.

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