Modern history

Empire and Wars



Alfred Thayer Mahan came from a military family. Born in 1840, he grew up in West Point, New York, where his father served as dean of the faculty at the U.S. Military Academy. Seeking to emerge from his father's shadow, Alfred attended the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated and received his commission in 1861, just as the Civil War was getting under way. His wartime experience convinced him that the navy, with its plodding, antiquated wooden vessels, needed a dramatic overhaul.

After the war, Mahan continued his naval career. Rather than making his mark on the high seas, Captain Mahan built his reputation as a military historian and strategist at the U.S. Naval War College. In 1890 he published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, in which he argued that the great imperial powers in modern history—Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France—had succeeded because they possessed strong navies and merchant marines. In his view, sea power had allowed these nations to defeat their enemies, conquer territories, and establish colonies from which they extracted raw materials and opened markets for finished goods. Appearing at a time when European nations were embarking on a new round of empire building, this book and subsequent writings had an enormous influence on American imperialists, including Theodore Roosevelt. Mahan's work reinforced the belief of men like Roosevelt that the long-term prospects of the United States depended on the acquisition of strategic outposts in Asia and the Caribbean that could guarantee American access to overseas markets.

As the economic and strategic importance of the Caribbean grew in the minds of imperial strategists such as Mahan and Roosevelt, the Cuban freedom fighter José Marti developed a very different vision of the region's future. Born in 1853 to Spanish immigrants who had migrated to Cuba for economic reasons, Marti got involved in the fight for Cuban independence from Spain as a teenager. In 1869, at age seventeen, he was arrested for protest activities during a revolutionary uprising against Spain. Sentenced to six years of hard labor, Marti was released after six months and was forced into exile. He returned to Cuba in 1878, only to be arrested and deported again the following year.

Marti settled in the United States, where, along with other Cuban exiles, he continued to promote Cuban independence and the establishment of a democratic republic. He conceived of the idea of Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) not just as a struggle for political independence but also as a social revolution that would erase unfair distinctions based on race and class. "Our goal," Marti declared in 1892, "is not so much a mere political change as a good, sound, and just and equitable system." Marti united disparate elements in expatriate communities in the United States and the Caribbean under the banner of a single Cuban Revolutionary Party.

When Cubans once again rebelled against Spain in 1895, Marti returned to Cuba to fight alongside his comrades. On May 19, 1895, only three months after he had returned to Cuba, Marti died in battle. Cuba ultimately won its independence from Spain, but Mart's vision of Cuba Libre was only partially realized. In 1898 the United States intervened on the side of the Cuban rebels, guaranteeing their victory, but not their freedom. America entered the war to gain control over Cuba, not to help Cubans take control of their own country.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Alfred Thayer Mahan and José Marti embodied disparate understandings of America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Up until the late nineteenth century, most Americans associated colonialism with the European powers and saw overseas expansion as incompatible with American values of independence and self-determination. In this context, they shared Marti’s point of view. The American imperialism espoused by Mahan and others, therefore, represented a reversal of traditional American attitudes. Supporters of American imperialism saw the acquisition and control of overseas territories, by force if necessary, as essential to the protection of American interests. This perspective would come to dominate American foreign policy in the early twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, progressive presidents who sanctioned increased federal regulation of economic and moral matters within the United States, also supported vigorous intervention in world affairs. Although Roosevelt and Wilson differed in style and approach, in foreign affairs they asserted America’s right to use its power to secure order and thwart revolution wherever American interests were seen to be threatened. Having become a major power on the world stage in the early twentieth century, the United States chose to enter World War I, in which rival European alliances battled for imperial domination. The end of the war heightened America’s critical role in world affairs but brought neither lasting peace nor the dissolution of empire.

Red Cross poster, 1917. Library of Congress

The Awakening of Imperialism

The United States became a modern imperial power relatively late. In the decades following the Civil War, the U.S. government concentrated most of its energies on settling the western territories, pushing Native Americans aside, and extracting the region’s resources. Unlike Europe, the United States possessed a sparsely inhabited frontier that would furnish land for its growing population, as well as raw materials and markets for its industries. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, sweeping economic, cultural, and social changes led many Americans to conclude that the time had come for the country to assert its power beyond its borders. Convinced of the argument for empire advanced by Mahan and other imperialists, American officials embraced an expansionist foreign policy. In a burst of overseas expansion from 1898 to 1904, the United States acquired Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico; established a protectorate in Cuba; and exercised force to build a canal through Panama. These gains paved the way for subsequent U.S. intervention in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

The Economics of Expansion

The industrialization of America and the growth of corporate capitalism stimulated imperialist desires in the late nineteenth century. Throughout its early history, the United States had sought overseas markets for exports, particularly its agricultural products. However, the importance of exports to the American economy increased dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century, as industrialization gained momentum. In 1870 American exports totaled $500 million. By 1905 the value of American exports had increased sixfold to $1.5 billion (Figure 20.1). John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company led the way in selling products to European and Asian markets, and firms such as Coca-Cola, Kodak, and McCormick earned profits by exporting soft drinks, cameras, and farm machinery, respectively.

The bulk of American exports went to the developed markets of Europe and Canada, which had the greatest purchasing power. Although the less economically advanced nations of Latin America and Asia did not have the same ability to buy American products, businessmen still considered these regions—especially China, with a population of millions of potential consumers—as future markets for American industries.


U.S. Exports and Imports, 1870-1910 As American industrial power increased at the end of the nineteenth century, exports increased dramatically. Between 1870 and 1910, U.S. exports more than tripled. Imports rose as well but were restrained by protective tariffs.

The desire to expand foreign markets remained a steady feature of American business interests. The fear that the domestic market for manufactured goods was shrinking gave this expansionist hunger greater urgency. The fluctuating business cycle of boom and bust that characterized the economy in the 1870s and 1880s reached its peak in the depression of the 1890s, the most severe economic downturn up to that point in American history. The social unrest that accompanied this depression, including protest marches and strikes (see chapter 17), worried business and political leaders about the stability of the country. The way to sustain prosperity and contain radicalism, many businessmen agreed, was to find foreign markets for goods that poured out of factories but could not be absorbed at home. Senator William Frye of Maine argued, “We must have the market [of China] or we shall have revolution.”

Similar commercial ambitions led many Americans to see Hawaii as an imperial prize. Interest in the islands dated back to the early nineteenth century. American missionaries first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1820. As missionaries tried to convert native islanders to Christianity, American businessmen sought to establish plantations on the islands, especially to grow sugarcane, as the market for sugar had grown rapidly during the 1870s and 1880s. In exchange for duty-free access to the U.S. sugar market, white Hawaiians signed an agreement in 1887 that granted the United States exclusive rights to a naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.

The growing influence of white sugar planters on the islands alarmed native Hawaiians. In 1891 Queen Liliuokalani, a strong nationalist leader who voiced the slogan “Hawaii for the Hawaiians,” sought to increase the power of the indigenous peoples she governed, at the expense of the sugar growers. In 1893 white plantation owners, with the cooperation of the American ambassador to Hawaii and 150 U.S. marines, overthrew the queen’s government. Once in command of the government, they entered into a treaty of annexation with the United States. However, President Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and withdrew the treaty. Nevertheless, planters remained in power and waited for a suitable opportunity to seek annexation.

Cultural Justifications for Imperialism

Imperialists linked overseas expansion to practical, economic considerations, but race was also a key component in their arguments for empire. Drawing on Herbert Spencer’s concept of “survival of the fittest,” many Americans and western Europeans declared themselves superior to nonwhite peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Buttressing their arguments with racist studies claiming to demonstrate scientifically the “racial” superiority of white Protestants, imperialists claimed a “natural right” of conquest and world domination (see chapter 19).

Imperialists added an ethical dimension to this ideology by contending that “higher civilizations” had a duty to uplift inferior nations. In Our Country (1885), the Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong proclaimed the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon, or white northern European, race and the responsibility of the United States to spread the “blessings” of its Christian way of life throughout the world. Secular intellectuals, such as historian John Fiske, praised the English race for settling the United States and predicted that “its language . . . its religion . . . its political habits, and . . . the blood of its people” would become “predominant” in the less civilized parts of the globe.

As in Hawaii, Christian missionaries served as foot soldiers for the advancing American commercial empire. In fact, there was often a clear connection between religious and commercial interests. For example, in 1895 industrialists John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Cyrus McCormick created the World Student Christian Federation, which dispatched more than five thousand young missionaries throughout the world, many of them women. Likewise, it was no coincidence that China, an enormous potential market for American products, became a magnet for American missionary activity. By 1920 missionaries in China were operating schools, hospitals, orphanages, leper colonies, churches, and seminaries, seeking to convert the “backward” Chinese to Christianity and the American way of life. Many Americans hoped that, under missionary supervision, the Chinese would become consumers of both American ideas and American products.

Gender and Empire

Gender anxieties provided an additional motivation for American imperialism. In the late nineteenth century, with the Civil War long over, many Americans worried that the rising generation of American men lacked opportunities to test and strengthen their manhood. For example, in 1897 Mississippi congressman John Sharp Williams lamented the waning of “the dominant spirit which controlled in this Republic [from 1776 to 1865] . . . one of honor, glory, chivalry, and patriotism.” Such gender anxieties were not limited to elites. The depression of the 1890s hit working-class men hard, causing them to question their self-worth as they lost the ability to support their families. In this context, the poem “The White Man’s Burden,” written by the British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling in 1899, touched a nerve with American men. In the poem, Kipling urges white men to take up the “burden” of bringing civilization to non-Western peoples. By embracing the imperialist project, they would regain their manly honor.

The growing presence of women as political activists in campaigns for suffrage and moral, humanitarian, and governmental reforms was particularly troubling to male identity. Some men warned that dire consequences would result if women succeeded in feminizing politics. Alfred Thayer Mahan believed that women’s suffrage would undermine the nation’s military security because women lacked the will to use physical force. He asserted that giving the vote to women would destroy the “constant practice of the past ages by which to men are assigned the outdoor rough action of life and to women that indoor sphere which we call the family.” As Mahan’s comment shows, calling American men to action was often paired with a call for American women to leave the public arena and return to the home.

American males could reassert their manhood by adopting a militant spirit. An English verse from 1878 described this attitude: “We don’t want to fight, yet by Jingo! If we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too.” Known as jingoists, war enthusiasts such as Theodore Roosevelt could not contain their desire to find a war in which to prove their masculinity. “You and your generation have had your chance from 1861 to 1865,” Roosevelt exclaimed to a Civil War veteran. “Now let us of this generation have ours!” Captain Mahan concurred. “No greater danger could befall civilization than the disappearance of the warlike spirit (I dare say war) among civilized men,” he asserted. “There are too many barbarians still in the world.” Mahan and Roosevelt echoed the British jingoists’ pride in naval power. The Naval Act of 1890 authorized funding for construction of three battleships to join the two existing ones. These warships would provide the foundation for a revitalized navy capable of safeguarding American interests in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ten years later, the U.S. fleet had grown to seventeen battleships and six armored cruisers, making it the third most powerful navy in the world, up from twelfth place in 1880. Having built a powerful navy, the United States would soon find opportunities to use it.


• What role did economic developments play in prompting calls for an American empire? What role did social and cultural developments play?

• Why did the United States embark on building an empire in the 1890s and not decades earlier?

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