Imperialism and War: American Foreign Affairs 1865-1920

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Imperialism and War: American Foreign Affairs 1865-1920

After the Civil War Americans got busy expanding internally. With the frontier to conquer and virtually unlimited resources, they had little reason to look elsewhere. Americans generally had a high level of disdain for Europe, although wealthy Americans were often educated there and respected European cultural achievements in art, music and literature. Americans also felt secure from external threat because of their geographic isolation between two oceans, which gave them a sense of invulnerability. Until very late in the 19th century Americans remained essentially indifferent to foreign policy and world affairs.

What interests America did have overseas were generally focused in the Pacific and the Caribbean, where trade, transportation and communication issues commanded attention. To the extent that Americans wanted to extend their influence overseas they had two primary goals: pursue favorable trade agreements and alignments and foster the spread of Christian and democratic ideals as they understood them. The isolationism that seemed to work for America began to change late in the century for a variety of reasons. First, the industrial revolution had created challenges that required a broad reassessment of economic policies and conduct. The production of greater quantities of goods, the need for additional sources of raw materials and greater markets—in general the expansive nature of capitalism—all called for Americans to begin to look outward.

America had always been driven by the idea of “manifest destiny,” which was at first the idea that the U.S. was to expand over the whole continent of North America, “from the Isthmus of Panama to the Arctic Circle.” While Canada and Mexico seemed impervious to further expansion by Americans, at least there had been the rest of the mainland to fill up. With the ending of the frontier and the completion of the settlement of the West the impulse to further expansion spilled out over America’s borders.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War the U.S. purchased Alaska and began to develop commercial interests in the Caribbean and the Pacific in places like Cuba, Hawaii, Midway, Samoa, the Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. A great part of the impetus for expansion came from a rather unlikely source, naval officer Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. Founder of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Captain Mahan began to write widely read and applauded books and articles that called for America to develop its strength on the basis of sea power, which he found to have been a decisive force throughout history in making nations and empires great and long lasting.

Mahan wrote a number of books based on the theme of the “Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Mahan’s basic idea was that to remain great and strong in an ever more competitive world, America needed a powerful maritime force, both naval and commercial, and an overseas infrastructure of naval bases, coaling stations and the like to support a powerful fleet in the age of iron and steam. Mahan did not confine his thoughts strictly to naval matters, but also brought in ideas relating to the expansion of commercial interests and overseas markets for American goods, developed under the aegis of naval might. Mahan's ideas were popular not only in America, but also in Great Britain, Germany and Japan, and surely contributed to the international naval armaments race.

Mahan’s ideas, which were compatible with the popularized notions of social Darwinism (maritime nations were among the fittest and therefore could and should survive), were not the only ideas that propelled Americans’ thoughts beyond her borders. The missionary spirit was still strong in America, and many felt that the spreading of Christianity went nicely with the concept of spreading democracy. Inherent in this view was a clearly racist streak of thought which maintained that the European races (and particularly the Anglo-Saxon race) were inherently superior and had the right, if not the obligation, to spread their beneficial influence all over the world to less fortunate peoples. Furthermore, even if Americans had reservations about those expansionist ideas, as many did, their doubts were often tempered by the fact that everybody seemed to be doing it. This was the age of so-called neo-imperialism, when the European powers seemed bent on gobbling up all the underdeveloped areas of the world and turning them into colonies for military, commercial or political purposes.

A final piece of this newly evolving American foreign policy was a renewed confidence in the essential idea of the Monroe Doctrine—that the United States was the gate keeper and protector of the Western Hemisphere. What would eventually become the Roosevelt Corollary was established by 1900—that we had the final say in controlling all the territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast in North and South America.

America and Imperialism: The Growth of Imperial Ideas

Historian Paul Kennedy has called the emergence of the U.S. as player on world stage the most decisive change in late 19th century. America saw herself with a “special moral endowment” and felt justified in projecting influence beyond her borders. Americans still intended to avoid “entangling alliances” but felt free to get more actively involved in the affairs of the world.

Before 1865 America had been preoccupied with the Civil War, and while the nation was thus occupied, the European powers felt free to ignore the Monroe Doctrine. Spain attempted to reverse the course of a revolution in the Dominican Republic, but although they United States was unable to assist the rebels, Spain withdrew in 1865.  The United States was also aware of disturbances in Mexico but did not intervene. The European powers had been involved with Mexico because of debts owed to them, and although Spain and Great Britain eventually withdrew, France stayed on.

Napoleon III, having declared himself the French Emperor and striving to emulate the deeds of his famous uncle, Napoleon I, named Archduke Maximilian of Austria to be the Emperor of Mexico.  With the United States Army no longer involved in the Civil War, General Philip Sheridan was sent with 50,000 troops to the Mexican border in 1866.  Issued an ultimatum, Napoleon finally pulled out of Mexico in 1867 and Emperor Maximilian was deposed and shot by a firing squad.  The event was seen as a victory for the Monroe Doctrine. (Napoleon’s Mexican venture was the most serious challenge to the Monroe Doctrine until Soviet Premier Khrushchev introduced nuclear missiles into Castro’s Cuba in 1962.)

Russia, meanwhile, owned the territory of Alaska and in fact had ventured down the western coast of North America as far as Northern California, where they built a fort (whose remains till stand.)  Anticipating, however, that holding on to a distant territory on a different continent might be difficult and unprofitable, the Russians were in the mood to get rid of the territory and sent a German negotiator to meet with the United States. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska for $7.2 million dollars, a venture which critics referred to as “Seward’s icebox.” Given the vast natural resources of precious minerals and oil that were eventually discovered in Alaska, “Seward's Folly” turned out to be an excellent bargain.

The busy Secretary also negotiated a treaty to purchase the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $7.6 million, but the Senate refused to ratify the agreement. Meanwhile the United States occupied Midway Island in the Pacific.

In 1870 President Grant decided to attempt to annex the Dominican Republic and sent agents to negotiate an agreement. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Grant’s most effective cabinet officer, was not particularly enthusiastic about the idea, and most of Grant's Cabinet disapproved, but the president was undeterred.  Grant lobbied the Senate heavily to adopt the treaty, but the Senate refused, leaving Grant frustrated.

The Alabama Claims. During the Civil War a number of British-built Confederate raiders, the C.S.S. Alabama, C.S.S. Shenandoah and others, had destroyed 100,000 tons of United States shipping. In 1869 Secretary Seward negotiated an agreement to adjudicate American claims against Great Britain, but the agreement was rejected by the Senate by a vote of 53 to 1.  In 1871 Secretary of State Fish reopened the issue, and the Treaty of Washington of 1871 led to an agreement to submit the claims to an international tribunal consisting of Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, Great Britain and the United States. The tribunal eventually awarded the United States $15.5 million in damages, noting that Great Britain had failed to exercise “due diligence” in allowing British shipbuilders to violate neutrality policies.

The United States had had an eye on Cuba since before the Civil War, and in 1868 an insurrection known as the Ten Years War broke out on the island.  The Cubans declared their independence and set up a provisional government, but its status was uncertain when President Grant took office. A United States mediation plan was unsuccessful, and Secretary of State Fish worked to keep the United States from intervening. 

In 1873 trouble erupted again when American gunrunners were caught providing aid to the Cuban rebels.  The Spanish government captured a vessel, the U.S.S. Virginius, and executed the crew, including Americans.  Just before he was hanged, the ship's commander, a Captain Fry, sent a pathetic letter to his wife which was published in a New York newspaper. War fever flared up in the country, and coastal cities armed themselves, but Secretary Fish was once again able to resolve the issue peacefully.  Spain later paid an indemnity to the families of the executed Americans. Although the bloodshed continued in Cuba for several more years, Spain finally enforced peace, but future troubles between the United States and Spain over Cuba remained a distinct possibility.

The building of the transcontinental railroads had brought many Chinese laborers to the United States, and they did not easily assimilate into American culture once their building duties were done.  In 1885 Chinese settlers were massacred in Wyoming, and anti-Chinese agitation was widespread on the West Coast.  Many Chinese returned to their native land and spread stories about their mistreatment at the hands of the Americans. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration for 10 years. Tense relations between the United States and China persisted into the 1900s.

Additional incidents regarding the United States and the rest of the world flared up from time to time. Despite tensions among the United States, Germany and Great Britain, America became part of a joint protectorate over Samoa and eventually became the owner of American Samoa in 1929.  Trouble arose briefly in New Orleans over the killing of several Italian citizens connected with the Mafia. Although the Italians were angered, United States maintained the position that it was a matter of Louisiana state law.  A dispute in Chile once again saw gunrunners interfering in a Civil War, and when the U.S.S. Baltimore visited Chile, two American sailors were killed and 17 wounded in a mêlée.  Chile eventually indemnified United States for the sailors killed.

In 1895 a dispute arose over the border between Venezuela and British Guiana.  The United States offered to mediate the dispute, but the British rejected the idea, irritating United States Secretary of State Richard Olney, who declared that the United States was “practically sovereign” in the Western Hemisphere.  Great Britain answered that the Monroe Doctrine had no force in international law, but decided it was in her own best interest not to pursue the matter, feeling that “war would be an absurdity.” (Besides, Great Britain was having trouble with the Boers in South Africa.)

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