Modern history

Extending U.S. Imperialism, 1899-1913

The War of 1898 turned the United States into an imperial nation. Once the war was over, and with its newly acquired empire in place, the United States sought to extend its influence, competing with its European rivals for even greater global power. President Theodore Roosevelt and his successors achieved Captain Mahan’s dream of building a Central American canal and wielded American military and financial might in the Caribbean with little restraint. At the same time, the United States took a more active role in Asian affairs.

Theodore Roosevelt and “Big Stick” Diplomacy

After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded him as president. As in domestic matters, Roosevelt believed in using power to protect American commercial and strategic interests as well as to preserve international order and stability. In his view, the United States required a strong military and the political will to use it. “It is contemptible for a nation, as for an individual,” Roosevelt instructed Congress, “[to] proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force.” This Progressive Era interventionist, inspired by Captain Mahan’s writings, welcomed his nation’s new role as a major world power. From this point on, the United States would play the role of an international policeman, using force if necessary to keep the peace.

As the most important part of his international agenda, Roosevelt sought to demonstrate American might and preserve order in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The building of the Panama Canal provides a case in point. Mahan considered a canal across Central America as vital because it would provide faster access to Asian markets and improve the U.S. navy’s ability to patrol two oceans effectively. The United States took a step toward realizing Mahan’s goal in 1901, when it signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty with Britain, granting the United States the right to construct a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After first considering Nicaragua, Roosevelt settled on Panama as the prime location. A French company had already begun construction at this site and had completed two-fifths of the operation; however, when it ran out of money, it sold its holdings to the United States for the bargain price of $40 million.

Before the United States could resume building, it had to negotiate with the South American country of Colombia, which controlled Panama. Secretary of State Hay and Colombian representatives reached an agreement highly favorable to the Americans, which the Colombian government refused to ratify. When Colombia held out for a higher price, Roosevelt accused the Colombians of being “utterly incapable of keeping order” in Panama and declared that transit across Panama was vital to world commerce. In 1903 the president supported a pro-American uprising by sending warships into the harbor of Panama City, an action that prevented the Colombians from quashing the insurrection. Roosevelt quickly recognized the new government of Panama and signed a treaty with it granting the United States the right to build the canal and exercise “power and authority” over it. In 1914, under American control, the Panama Canal opened to sea traffic.

With the United States controlling Cuba, the Panama Canal, and Puerto Rico, President Roosevelt intended to deter any threats to America’s power in the region. The economic instability of Central American and Caribbean nations provided Roosevelt with the opportunity to brandish what he called a “big stick” to keep these countries in check and prevent intervention by European powers also interested in the area. (The term comes from a proverb Roosevelt was fond of quoting: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”) Referring to neighboring countries to the south, the president grumbled: “These wretched republics cause me a great deal of trouble.” In 1904, when the government of the Dominican Republic was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and threatened to default on $22 million in European loans, Roosevelt sprang into action. He announced U.S. opposition to any foreign intervention to reclaim debts, a position that echoed the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, which in 1823 proclaimed that the United States would not tolerate outside intervention in the Western Hemisphere. However, the president went even further and added his own corollary to the Monroe Doctrine by affirming the right of the United States to intervene in the internal affairs of any country in Latin America or the Caribbean that displayed “chronic wrong-doing” and could not preserve order and manage its own affairs. The Roosevelt Corollary proclaimed what Cubans and Panamanians already knew: The United States considered the region south of its border to be within its sphere of influence. Retaining nominal independence, the countries of Central America and the Caribbean had to behave according to U.S. wishes or face American military invasion.

Opening the Door in China

Roosevelt displayed American power in other parts of the world. His major concern was protecting the Open Door policy in China that his predecessor McKinley had engineered to secure naval access to the China market. By 1900 European powers already dominated foreign access to Chinese markets, leaving scant room for newcomers. When the United States sent 2,500 troops to China in August 1900 to help quell a nationalist uprising against foreign involvement known as the Boxer uprising, European competitors in return were compelled to allow the United States free trade access to China.

In 1904 the Russian invasion of the southern Chinese province of Manchuria prompted the Japanese to attack the Russian fleet. Roosevelt held mixed emotions about the Japanese. The president admired Japanese military prowess, but he worried that if Japan succeeded in driving the Russians out of the area, it would cause “a real shifting of equilibrium as far as the white races are concerned.” To prevent that from happening, Roosevelt convened a peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905. Under the agreement reached at the conference, Japan received control over Korea and parts of Manchuria but pledged to support the United States’ Open Door policy. In 1906, fresh from this achievement, the president sent sixteen American battleships on a trip around the globe in a show of force meant to demonstrate that the United States was serious about taking its place as a premier world power.

Boxer Uprising In 1900 the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a Chinese militaristic and secret society known as the Boxers, attacked foreign diplomatic offices in Beijing to expel outsiders. This illustration from Hunan province portrays the Boxers killing foreigners and burning Christian books. The Boxers viewed Christian missionaries as cultural enemies. A coalition of multinational forces crushed the uprising . Kharbine-Tapabor/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

When Roosevelt’s secretary of war, William Howard Taft, became president (1909— 1913), he continued his predecessors foreign policy with slight modification. Proclaiming that he would rather substitute “dollars for bullets,” Taft encouraged private bankers to invest money in the Caribbean and Central America. Eager to embrace the president’s policy of dollar diplomacy, the bankers doubled their investments in the region. Yet Taft did not rely on financial influence alone. He backed up American commercial investments by dispatching more than 2,000 U.S. troops to the region to guarantee economic stability. The president sought to extend his dollar diplomacy to China by trying to weaken Russia’s and Japan’s hold over Manchuria, but he succeeded only in drawing the two rivals closer together.

Taft’s diplomacy also led to extensive intervention in Nicaragua. In 1909 American fruit and mining companies in Nicaragua helped install a regime sympathetic to their interests. When a group of rebels threatened this pro-American government, Taft invoked the Roosevelt Corollary and sent in American marines to police the country and deter further uprisings. They remained there for another twenty-five years. Under the U.S. occupation, American bankers took control of the country’s customs houses and paid off debts owed to foreign investors, a move meant to forestall outside intervention in a nation that was now under American “protection.”


• How did the United States assert its influence and control over Latin America in the early twentieth century?

• How did U.S. policies in Latin America mirror U.S. policies in Asia?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!