Modern history

Conclusion: An American Empire

In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the United States transformed itself into an imperial power. Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt carried out the strategy outlined by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan to enlarge the navy, construct a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and acquire coaling stations and bases in the Pacific to service the fleet. U.S. officials disregarded the nationalistic aspirations of freedom fighters such as José Marti in Cuba and Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines in favor of the imperial spoils gained from winning the War of 1898. The United States justified intervention on moral grounds predicated on racist beliefs: As a fit and manly nation, the United States had the responsibility to uplift inferior peoples to “civilized” standards and make them capable of self-government. This justification quickly wore thin. To crush the rebellion in the Philippines, the military engaged in atrocities that called into question the honor and virtue of the United States. Once it achieved victory in the Philippines, the nation concentrated its efforts on maintaining territories primarily for commercial purposes. Within the few short years from 1898 to 1904, this commercial empire had fallen into place.

The progressive presidents, Roosevelt and Wilson, created and sustained an American empire. They disagreed significantly in approach—Roosevelt favoring force, Wilson preferring negotiations; Roosevelt a realist, Wilson a moralist—but in practice they shared a willingness to use military power to protect national interests. These two presidents helped construct the modern American state, an expanded federal government that officially sanctioned cooperation with responsible corporate leaders. This relationship reached its peak during World War I. In mobilizing the home front, the Wilson administration blurred the line between public and private business by expanding the reach of government over the economy and curtailed personal liberty.

In 1917, because of its heavy reliance on trade with foreign countries, especially in Europe, the United States confronted its first major international crisis of the twentieth century. Wilson reluctantly led the country into war to guarantee a world order in which reasonable nations attempted to resolve controversies through negotiation, not violence. The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations, for which the president was largely responsible, shattered that idealistic dream.

The United States retreated from joining an international body offering collective security, but it did not isolate itself from participation in the world. The country emerged from the war in excellent financial shape; it had become the leading foreign creditor, and its industrial capacity had greatly expanded. Tending its commercial empire in the Caribbean and Central America, the United States probed for new markets in Asia and the Middle East. It would take another two decades for policymakers to realize that the country’s refusal to support a strong collective response to expansionist aggression posed serious dangers for American commerce and values.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

jingoists (p. 515)

Cuba Libre (p. 516)

yellow journalism (p. 517)

Teller Amendment (p. 518)

Platt Amendment (p. 518)

Anti-Imperialist League (p. 520)

Roosevelt Corollary (p. 522)

Open Door (p. 522)

dollar diplomacy (p. 523)

Mexican revolution (p. 524)

Zimmermann telegram (p. 527)

War Industries Board (WIB) (p. 529)

National War Labor Board (NWLB) (p. 529)

Committee on Public Information (CPI) (p. 530)

Espionage Act (p. 531)

Sedition Act (p. 531)

American Protective League (APL) (p. 531)

Fourteen Points (p. 532)

League of Nations (p. 532)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

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

2. Why did the United states embark on building an empire in the 1890s and not decades earlier?

3. Why did the United states go to war with spain in 1898?

4. in what ways did the War of 1898 mark a turning point in the relationship between the United states and the rest of the world?

5. How did the United states assert its influence and control over Latin America in the early twentieth century?

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

7. in what ways, if any, did president Wilson's approach to Latin American affairs differ from that of his predecessors?

8. Why did president Wilson find it so difficult to keep the United states out of World War i?

9. What steps did the U.S. government take to control the economy and public opinion during World War i?

10. How did president Wilson's wartime policies and his efforts to shape the peace that followed reflect his progressive roots?



• U.S. creates third most powerful navy in the world


• Alfred Mahan publishes The Influence of Sea Power upon History


• American plantation owners overthrow Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii


• Cuban War for Independence begins


• U.S. battleship Maine explodes

• The War of 1898 begins

• Anti-Imperialist League founded


• Philippine-American War


• Platt Amendment passed


• Roosevelt Corollary announced


• U.S. intervenes in Nicaragua on behalf of American fruit and mining companies


Panama Canal opens under American control

• World War I begins


• German submarine sinks the Lusitania


• Wilson sends U.S. troops into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa


Zimmermann telegram becomes public

• United States enters World War I

• Espionage Act passed

• War Industries Board established

• Committee on Public Information established


• Sedition Act passed

• National War Labor Board established

• Germany surrenders, ending World War I


• Wilson loses battle for ratification of Treaty of Versailles

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