As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The American Quest for Empire

Cartoon "Well I hardly know which to take First."  1898

For the past weeks, we have focused on the last four decades of the 19th Century. We learned about the politics and the divine nature of Manifest Destiny and its effect on American Indians and we also discussed the political and economic policies that promoted industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of corporate America. These endeavors were part of our domestic policy. Today, we are continuing our chronological story by changing gears and focusing on America's foreign policy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. And the above political cartoon is a great place to start ...

So today we begin that outward discussion by examining what most history books call "The Age of Imperialism." The imperialist foreign policy of the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century is especially apparent in these two quotes:

"A new consciousness seems to have come upon us - the consciousness of strength - and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength ... Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the tast of blood in the jungle." Editorial, Washington Post, 1898

"God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No, He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples - He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world." Senator Albert J. Beveridge, 1900

For the next two days, I challenge you to critically think about the attitudes of these Americans.

As we begin our discussion today on American foreign policy, it is important to keep in mind what we concluded during our last meeting - that Americans had two conflicting notions of freedom - one from the business community that believed freedom required their complete control over property rights and the other from the laboring community that believed freedom required economic security and independence. These conflicting beliefs about domestic policy will be complicated by the growing conflicting beliefs about foreign policy.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To define imperialism and expansionism and how these terms were interpreted in the late 19th Century America.
  2. To understand the shifting tides of imperialism at we neared and then entered the 20th Century.
  3. To explore American imperialism in the Caribbean and Latin America.
  4. To examine American imperialism in the Pacific Islands.
  5. To explore the goals and effectiveness of the anti-imperialist voices.

Goal #1 : To define imperialism and expansionism and how these terms were interpreted in the late 19th Century America

Imperialism - the policy of imposing economic and political control over other peoples in a way that undermines their sovereignty and takes away their freedom to make political and economic decisions. As the map below indicates, throughout most the 19th Century, the five largest empires dominated a great deal of the world - England, Spain, France,the Ottoman, and Portugal.


By the early 20th Century, as the map below indicates, most of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific had been divided among these 4 empires, as well as some newer empires - especially the United States, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. With such colonization, each of the empires justified their imperialistic stance by arguing that their colonial domination would "civilize" the backwards people in their areas.

Map of colonial powers in 1900

Under this definition of imperialism, why do most of our textbooks refer to Spanish-American War as our first imperialist movement or Teddy Roosevelt as our first imperialist president?

Revisionist historians argue otherwise: They believe that westward expansion was indeed imperialistic especially in regard to Americans taking Indian and Mexican lands which undermined their sovereignty and destroyed their self determination.

So, let's take a look at the shape American imperialism begins to assume toward the end of the 19th Century.

Goal #2: To understand the shifting tides of imperialism at we neared and then entered the 20th Century

In the 1870s, some Americans began to look at imperialism as an important component of our economic, social, and political growth. We can see this changing nature of American imperialism especially by looking at the views of powerful Americans toward the turn of the century.

How did this happen?   In the 1880s, the U.S. government signed bilateral economic treaties with Mexico, Colombia, the British West Indies, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Spanish-dominated Puerto Rico, and Cuba.  Thus, Central and Latin American countries exported more raw materials to US.  In return, the U.S. created a market in Central and Latin America for American manufactured goods.  In short, these bilateral economic treaties allowed American business to dominate Central and Latin American economies.

Through these treaties, a type of economic imperialism had arisen and gradually had become an accepted form of foreign policy. And the goals were economic, political, and social:

As we will now learn, these economic, social, and political goals of imperialism were put into practice in the Caribbean and Latin American nations.

Goal #3: To explore American imperialism in the Caribbean and Latin America

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayler Mahan, a member of the Navy War Board, wrote a book titled The Influence of Sea Power upon History in which he argued for the creation of a large and powerful navy that would require the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean. Such colonies would serve as coaling and naval stations and as strategical points of defense upon the eventual construction of a canal in Central America. To that end, the U.S. began the process of aquiring colonies or control over Caribbean and Latin American territories.

In Latin America, however, we did not politically colonize nations. Instead we expanded our economic opportunities, thereby creating a type of economic colonization. Additionally, we saw huge economic exploitation of corporations like United Fruit Company and the introduction of oil investments into Venezuela and copper investments in Chili.

map of us and caribbean possessions

We can see a strong illustration of how the U.S. used its imperialistic policies in Cuba, Haiti, the Domincan Republic, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Panama.

The U.S. and Cuba

1895   Cuban rebels began demanding independence from Spain.  US declared neutrality.

1898   February, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing almost 270 American crewmen.

The yellow journalism tactics of William Randolph Hearst, owner of The New York Journal and Joseph Pultizer, owner of Photo William Randolph HearstThe New York World, launched a competitive campaign to sell their newspapers. Their efforts turn many Americans into supporters of war with Spain to liberate the Cubans.

In early April, Congress also passed four resolutions that declared Cuba was and should be independent, demanded that Spain withdraw "at once," authorized the president to use force to accomplish Spanish withdrawal, and disavowed any intention to annex the island (known as the Teller Amendment.)

On April 11, President McKinley asked Congress for permission to use military force in Cuba and on April 25th, Congress declared war on Spain. By the end of April, the U.S.. North Atlantic Squadron had fully blockaded Cuba.

On August 12, after about 2-12 months of fighting, the Spanish surrendered.  More than 306,000 men served in the American forces - 385 died in battle and more than 2,000 died of disease and other causes.

In December, Spain and the US signed the Treaty of Paris in which Spain:

1901   U.S. troops withdrew from Cuba after remaining for three years to oversee the formation of a constitution that favored US interests.  Withdrawal only occurred after the Cubans agreed to sign the Platt Amendment that laid down several conditions to which the Cuban Government had to agree before the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the transfer of sovereignty: 

The rationale behind the Platt Amendment was straightforward: the U.S. intervened in Cuba in order to safeguard its significant commercial interests on the island and as the U.S. military occupation of the island was to end, the U.S. needed some method of maintaining a permanent presence and order. The Platt Amendment remained in effect until 1934.

1902 U.S. military occupation of Cuba officially ended.

1906-1909 U.S. troops were stationed in Cuba to put down a rebellion.

1917-1922 U.S. troops were stationed in Cuba to "protect" Cubans

The U.S. and Haiti

1915 President Wilson responded to requests from American banks to which Haiti was deeply in debt by occupying the country.

1915 Under the supervision of the United States Marines, the Haitian National Assembly elected a president who signed a treaty making Haiti an Amerian protectorate, with American officials assuming control over the Financial Adviser, Customs Receivership, the Constabulary, the Public Works Service, and the Public Health Service for a period of ten years.

1934 The US withdrew from Haiti but not before the occupation forces established a boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic that took disputed land from the latter and left the Dominican Republic ruled by Haiti.

The U.S. and the Dominican Republic

1869 President Grant tried to annex the Dominican Republic, but failed to win Congressional support.

1905 The US assumed "receivership" over Dominican customs so they can pay back their international debts.

Map of the Caribbean1916 The US Marines entered to put down a rebellion.  After the Dominicans refused to sign a treaty giving US control of the republic's finances and armed forces, the marines took over and established a military government.

1924 American troops left, but the Dominican Republic remained under US financial supervision until 1941.

1944 the Domincan Republic declared its independence from Haiti.

The U.S. and Virgin Islands

1902 The US tried to purchase St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John islands from Denmark but the Danish parliament rejected the offer

1917 Denmark sold the three islands - thereafter known as the Virgin Islands - to US for $25 million and it became an American territory.

1927 U.S. citizenship was granted to island residents.

Today, the Virgin Islands are politically split between the British and the Americans - the eastern islands form the British Virgin Islands and the western islands form the Virgin Islands of the United States. The British Virgin Islands is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom comprising Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada. The Virgin Islands that comprise the U.S. territory are run by an elected governor. The territory is under the jurisdiction of the president of the United States. While they are U.S. citizens, Virgin Islanders cannot vote in United States presidential election and cannot elect voting members of Congress. They do have one elected representative in the U.S. House of Representatives who can vote in congressional committees but not in the House itself.

The U.S. and Puerto Rico

1898 In March, leaders of the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party corresponded with President William McKinley and the U.S. Senate in hopes that they would consider including Puerto Rico in the intervention planned for Cuba.

December, after ratification of the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico came under U.S. military control .

1900 Congress passed the Foraker Act (also known as the Organic Act of 1900) that established a civil government, judicial system, and free commerce between Puerto Rico and the United States. The Foraker Act also required the removal of a local law that limited the ownership of any one person to 500 acres of land, thus transforming Puerto Rico's agricultural economy into a sugar monoculture economy and giving American sugar companies an advantage over the local sugar plantation owners. The local owners thereafter faced high interest rates at local banks (compared to the low rates that the American companies received from the commercial banks in Wall Street) as well as new tariffs which forced many either into backruptcy or into selling their holdings to the more powerful American sugar companies.

1917 U.S. Congress passed the Jones Act making Puerto Rico a United States territory which is "organized but unincorporated." Puerto Ricans were also collectively given U.S. citizenship but cannot vote in United States presidential election or elect voting members of Congress. They haveone elected representative in the U.S. House of Representatives who can vote in congressional committees but not in the House itself.

The U.S. and the Panama Canal

1880s   American, British, and French companies had pursued various plans to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Panama was a colony of Gran Colombia.

A French company - the New Panama Canal Company - already  had the rights to build a canal in the province of Panama.  After several  years, the project became too costly so the French sought of panama canal

1898 After the battleship Maine exploded, another battleship, the Oregon, was ordered to proceed immediately from San Francisco around the Horn on a 12,000 mile trip to Florida. It took 67 days to make the trip which emphasized the military necessity for an Isthmian canal.

In December in his annual message to Congress, President William McKinley called for an interoceanic canal, adding that "our national policy now more imperatively than ever calls for its control by this Government."

Photo of Teddy Roosevelt at Panama Canal1903  A group Panamanian businessmen, French agents of the Panama Canal Company, and United States Army officers, developed a plot to help Panama gain independence from Colombia.

1904  Construction began on the Panama Canal.  It was completed in 1914 at a cost of $720 million.

photo of building the Panama Canal

1918 Anti-American riots erupted in Panama and the U.S. Marines occupied the Panamanian province of Chiriqui for two years to maintain public order.

1925 U.S. Army troops occupied Panama City to break a rent strike and keep order.

1939 Panama ceased to be a U.S. protectorate.

1978  President Jimmy Carter pressured the Senate to ratify two treaties that would turn the Panama Canal Zone over to Panama in 2000.

2000   Panama Canal reverted to Panamanian ownership.

For those of you who are interested in more modern U.S. interventions in Latin America, go to this map

Goal #4: To examine American imperialism in the Pacific Islands.

American Imperialism in the Hawaiian Islands

1830s   Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries founded schools to Christianize and Americanize the Hawaiians. As more Americans arrived, disease significantly diminished the native Hawaiian population.  With less labor for the sugar industry, American settlers imported Chinese and Japanese workers, thus building a multi-racial society over which the Hawaiians were gradually losing control.

photograph of King Kalakaua1874 David Kalakaua became King of Hawaii. An an intent nationalist, the King worked hard to maintain Hawaiian sovereignty. (See video on the early history at

1876 The King traveled to the U.S. to negotiate a treaty to trade sugar on a tax free basis.

1885 Almost all Hawaiian sugar plantations were in control of the Americans, most of whom were the ancestors of the early missionaries. The planters began to demand a greater role in Hawaiian politics.

1886 In exchange for renewing the sugar treaty, the U.S. demanded that Pearl Harbor be given to the U.S. as a fueling station for American ships in the Pacific. The King refused, believing it would hurt Hawaiian sovereignty.

1887  A group of American planters, missionaries, and businessmen formed a secret organization, the Hawaiian League which, in turn, joined forces with a local militia.

American sugar growers forced King Kalakaua to accept a new constitution (known as the Bayonet Constitution) granting American and European foreigners the right to vote and shifting decision-making authority from the monarchy to the Hawaiian legislature. 

In November , the legislature signed a treaty with the U.S. that allowed the Americans to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor.

1889 A young part-Hawaiian named Robert W. Wilcox staged an uprising to overthrow the 1887 Constitution. He led some 80 men, Hawaiians and Europeans in a predawn march to Iolani Palace with a new constitution for Kalakaua to sign. The king was away from the palace, and the Cabinet called out troops who forcibly put down the insurrection. Tried for conspiracy, Wilcox was found not guilty by a jury of Native Hawaiians, who considered him a folk hero.

1890   The McKinley Tariff Act eliminated Hawaiian sugar's favored status by admitting all foreign sugar into the US duty-free.  (Previously, only Hawaiian sugar had been duty-free.)  Domestic US sugar growers were also given a bounty of 2 cents a pound so they could sell at lower prices than Hawaiian and other foreign growers.  Hawaiian sugar prices plunged 40%.  Americans in Hawaii began pressing for annexation to classify their sugar as domestic rather than foreign.  (Americans owned about 3/4 of the island's wealth, while representing less than 10% of the population.)

1891 King Kalakaua died and his sister, Liliuokalani, assumed the throne.

1892   Queen Liliuokalani announced that she was planning a new constitution that would give her more discretionary powers to help her fight the American planters. (See videos "Hawaii's Last Queen, Part 5" at (about 7 minutes long) and then "Part 6" at

1893    In January, American and European resident merchants who had created an organization called the Committee of Public Safety forced the Queen from power and proclaimed a provisional government under the leadership of pineapple entrepreneur Sanford B. Dole. During the overthrow, the American Minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens, ordered the landing of armed U.S. Marines from the USS Boston in Honolulu which he said was necessary to protect lives and property. The Provisional Government of Hawaii immediately sent a treaty of annexation to President Benjamin Harrison who referred it to the Senate for ratification on February 15, 1893. Three weeks later, Grover Cleveland, became President and soon thereafter withdrew the treaty and appointed former congressman James Henderson Blount as special representative to investigate the events surrounding the overthrow.

The investigation confirmed that self-interested Americans led a conspiracy and that Hawaiians opposed annexation. Cleveland then tried to restore the monarchy - efforts that were rejected by Dole and his colleagues who arrested the queen and confined her to her quarters. Political Cartoon of Americans holding up Hawaiian Queen(In the cartoon, "We draw the line at this," the caption reads "Our good-natured country may allow this administration to give our market to England, sell our embassies to Anglomaniac dudes, and cause the reduction of wages to the Europeanstandard. But...we draw the line at this." Description: Soldiers are holding up on points of bayonets a round platform upon which sits a caricature of Lili'uokalani, feathers in her hair, crown askew, barefoot, holding a paper reading "scandalous government", and "gross immorality". )

1894 On July 4, Sanford Dole announced the creation of the Republic of Hawaii and declared himself president. His ultimate goal was annexation to the United States.

1895 In January, an insurrection began to try to restore the Queen; after 10 days of fighting, most of the rebels were captured.

The Queen was arrested and imprisoned on January 16th. She was tried, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence of five years imprisonment at hard labor and a $5,000 fine. While the sentence was not carried out, she remained a prisoner in the palace. (See Hawaii's Last Queen, Part 7 at

1898   Hawaiians submitted a petition to Congress with 29,000 signatures opposing annexation and asking that annexation be put to a public vote. They were never permitted to vote on the issue.

President McKinley signed a treaty to annex Hawaii, but it failed in the Senate after receiving 38,000 Hawaiian signatures opposing annexation. (International Law requires annexation to be accomplished via a treaty.)

On July 4, the U.S. Congress approved annexation of Hawaii via a joint resolution.

1900 Hawaii became a territory of the U.S. and Sanford Dole became its first governor.

1993 Congress passed and the President signed an Apology Resolution apologizing for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii a century before.

American Imperialism in Samoa

1830 The first Christian missionaries arrived in American Samoa. Shortly thereafter, whalers, traders, and more missionaries arrived.

1850s Pago Pago, one of the best natural deepwater harbors in the South Pacific Ocean, had become a major whaling station for many nations, including the U.S.

1870s The U.S., Great Britain, and Germany competed for commercial and diplomatic advantage in Samoa. In 1872, the Grant administration sent a "special commissioner" to "assist" the islanders and generally further American interests. After he helped the Samoans draft a constitution, the commissioner then installed himself as premier with near-dictatorial powers. In 1876, he was deposed and deported by the British. Samoa continued to be unstable, with various local factions bidding for support from the colonial powers.

1889 The U.S., Britain, and Germany attempted to settle their differences in the islands with the Berlin Treaty, which created a neutral and independent Samoa subject to the "advice" of the powers. This arrangement failed, and Samoa went through two rounds of civil war in the 1890s.

1899 The three powers replaced the Berlin Treaty with the Tripartite Pact, which divided Samoa between Germany and the United States, with Britain withdrawing all claims. The Pact also set the international boundary between what became American Samoa and the independent Republic of Samoa.

1900 The U.S. Navy assumed jurisdiction over the new colony expanded Pago Pago Bay into a full naval station.

1904 The western islands became known as Western Samoa.The eastern Samoan islands became unincorporated territory of the United States and became known as American Samoa.

1940 The Samoan islands had become a training area for the U.S. Marine Corps. After Pearl Harbor, the military facilities were rapidly and massively expanded, and Samoa became a rear staging area for U.S. offensives in the South Pacific. The military withdrew after the war's end, but this massive influx of American servicemen and goods had a lasting impact on Samoan society.

1951 American control of the islands shifted from the Navy to the Department of the Interior.

1962 Western Samoa became the first Pacific Island country to gain its independence

1967 The people of American Samoa adopted their own constitution and the first constitutional elections were in 1977. American Samoans are U.S. nationals who are unable to vote in Federal elections and do not pay Federal taxes. American Samoa is currently an unincorporated and unorganized territory of the US; administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, US Department of the Interior.

American Imperialism in the Phiippines

1896   Filipino guerillas under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo began fighting for independence from Spain.

map of moro province1898   Two days after the US Congress declared war on Spain, Commodore George Dewey sailed for Manilla with Aguinaldo on board.  On May 1, the US Navy arrived in Manilla Bay, securing the harbor while the guerrillas surrounded the capital city.

On June 12, Aguinaldo declared independence and established a Philippine Republic.  The US refused recognition.

In December, Spain sold the Philippines to the US for $20 million under the Treaty of Paris.  President McKinley issued the Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation which explained the U.S.' "altruistic" mission in acquiring the Philippines. The U.S. have "come, not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employment, and in their personal and religious rights." Moreover, the U.S. wanted to "win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule."

In late December, Aguinaldo and his forces mounted an armed opposition to American occupation. (See the video, Philippines 1900 at )

1902   The Filipinos surrendered.  Nearly 200,000 American troops fought to suppress the Cartoon "School Begins" of Uncle Sam schooling his "little brown brothers" in civilizationindependence movement, during which16,000 to 20,000 Filipino soldiers died.  An estimated 200,000 civilians died from war-related famine and disease. About 5,000 American soldiers died.

Congress passed the Philippine Government Act that provided for a presidentially-appointed governor to rule the islands and promised to elect a Filipino assembly and to eventually support self government. One of the reasons for remaining in the Philippines was to help our "little brown brothers," as emphasized in the cartoon "School Begins." In the back of the classroom students representing California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska are quietly reading. In the front row are boys representing the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii looking as if they would rather not be there.

While the war with the Filippinos was over, another war began - the war between the U.S. and the Moros - the Muslim peoples of the southern Philippine islands.

1906   The majority inhabitants of Moro Province - the independent Muslim Filipinos - refused to give in to U.S. leadership.  Comparing the "uncivilized" Moros to American Indians, the U.S. military ordered them to submit or to be exterminated.  By 1906, they were defeated: 600 were killed in one battle - women and children included.

1913 The battle of Bud Bagsak was the last Photo of Feb. 2012 anti-American protest in Filippines.major case of Moro resistance to U.S. control. The war with the Moros was over.

1934 Tydings-McDuffy Act provided for Philippine self-government and for Filipino independence from the U.S. after a period of ten years

1946   On July 4, the U.S. formally recognized the independence of the Philippines.

2012 Members of various peoplesí organizations marched on the US embassy in Manila to protest the US government's plans to increase troop deployment in the Philippines. The US had 600 troops stationed in the Philippines since 2002, not counting the periodic joint military exercises. But it was projected to increase after the US government announced plans to redeploy more of its troops into the Asia-Pacific region.

Goal #5: To explore the goals and effectiveness of the anti-imperialist voices

It is important to note that not all Americans agreed with the imperialist endeavors of the U.S. 1898 anti-imperialism political cartoonat the turn of the Century. In 1898, the Anti-Imperialist League was founded to oppose American annexation of the Philippines, the Platt Amendment, and the Treaty of Paris. The League's Platform begins with the statement that, "imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free." In fact, members of the League believed that imperialism could not exist in an American democracy. They emphasized that the nation had gained independence by fighting against Great Britain, an imperial power.

Andrew Carnegie, the Gilded Age steel magnate who had come from Scotland as a youth to pursue the American Dream, bankrolled the League. The League was most vociferous about the Philippine War, denouncing it as "the slaughter of the Filipinos as a needless horror" and it published examples of atrocities. You have all read the famous anti-imperialism speech by Mark Twain in regard to the fight in the Philippines.

Despite efforts of the League to try to turn Americans against imperialism, they were unsuccessful. The vast majority of Americans supported the efforts we have discussed today. The League died a quiet death in 1921.

The American Quest for Empire

  1. From the 1870s through 1914, both the U.S. and the major European powers embarked upon an unprecedented era of imperialist foreign policy.  Such policies were evolutionary given the fact that the U.S. government had used the policies of Manifest Destiny to expand its empire for decades.
  2. During this period, "the taste of Empire" was "in the mouth of the people."Thereafter, imperialism had three goals:
  3. By the end of the Spanish American War, the U.S. had become a global colonial power. The U.S. now had an island empire stretching from the Caribbean to the Pacific - Puerto Rico, Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Wake Island (annexed 1898), and Samoa (1899.)
  4. Americans paid a high price for its new empire:
  5. There was a great deal of anti-imperialist sentiment throughout the United States. Throughout the entire period of rapid imperialistic expansion, many Americans voiced their opposition both through informal or formal channels such as the American Anti-Imperialist League.
  6. When the imperialist movements of America come into conflict with the same aspirations of some of the most powerful nations in Europe, the actions combined in a way that encouraged the outbreak of World War I.
  7. The long-range repercussions of imperialist policies of this era are still being felt.  Cuba and Central and Latin American nations remain resentful of policies shaped by Roosevelt’s “Big Stick;” the Moros of the Philippines are still fighting for independence from an American-backed regime; and American islands in the Caribbean continue to be led by unstable governments that have challenged American domination.