Around the time of the Civil War, the majority of Americans showed little interest in foreign policy; national concerns were industrialization, the settlement of the West, and domestic politics. Nonetheless, steps were taken to extend American influence beyond the continental United States. Before and after the war, several small islands in the Pacific were acquired as coaling stations for American ships: Howland and Baker Islands in 1857 and the Midway Islands in 1867. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, though derided at the time as “Seward's Folly,” was seen by Secretary of State William H. Seward as an important step in establishing a foothold in Asian markets. In 1878, a treaty was negotiated that gave the United States the right to establish a naval station at Pago Pago in Samoa. The true prize in the Pacific, however, was the Hawaiian Islands.
The annexation of Hawaii. American missionaries and commercial interests had long been active in Hawaii; by the 1840s, they controlled the sugar plantations and held positions in government. The United States was given the right to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1887, and, in the same year, Americans on the islands forced the Hawaiian rulers to create a constitutional monarchy under American control. In 1891, Queen Liliuokalani assumed the throne and tried to reassert Hawaiian sovereignty, but this brief interlude of independence came to an end two years later when the planters, with the help of American gunboats, staged a successful coup. President Cleveland refused to annex Hawaii and preferred the restoration of a constitutional monarchy, but the leaders of the coup rejected that solution and instead proclaimed The Republic of Hawaii on July 4, 1894. The United States quickly recognized the new republic, but this did not end the matter. McKinley ran on a platform that called for the annexation of Hawaii, and the island became a U.S. territory in 1898, just as European and U.S. imperialism boiled over into the Spanish‐American War.
Justifications for expansion.Since 1870, European nations such as Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy had been seizing territory and establishing colonies in Africa and Asia. Several factors contributed to the United States' somewhat belated participation in this Age of Imperialism. Both industrial output and agricultural production were far exceeding the ability of the nation's consumers to absorb them, and foreign markets were thereby deemed essential to continued economic growth. Business leaders believed that huge profits could be made by selling American goods in Central and South America and Asia as well as by directly investing in the development of the natural resources of those countries. The clamor to annex Hawaii, for example, came first and foremost from the American sugar cane planters on the islands.
The proponents of a strong navy also recognized the value of overseas trade. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan argued in The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) that a nation's greatness depended on its navy, and that countries with the greatest fleets played a decisive role in shaping history. His vision for the United States included overseas colonies and control of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across either Panama or Nicaragua. Mahan's ideas influenced men like Theodore Roosevelt, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a supporter of American expansion.
In addition to national prestige, race theory was another justification for American imperialism. In 1885 Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong published Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, in which he argued that the United States, as the home of the “superior” Anglo‐Saxon race, had an obligation to spread political liberty, Christianity, and civilization. He wrote, “This powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond.” The popularity of Strong's book (the first edition sold 158,000 copies) indicated that public opinion supported the concept of the “white man's burden” and social Darwinism, or the survival of the fittest society. Such beliefs in moral and societal superiority helped Americans to rationalize U.S. involvement in foreign affairs.
The war with Spain. Spain's misrule of Cuba alarmed many American businessmen who had more than $50 million invested on the island. When the Spanish government attempted to harshly suppress a revolt, dramatic stories describing brutal atrocities circulated in the American press. Two leading American newspaper publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, used the Cuban tragedy to boost circulation through sensationalist reporting known as yellow journalism. The newspaper accounts succeeded in stirring anti‐Spanish and pro‐Cuban sentiment in the United States. The publication of the de Lome Letter, a letter from the Spanish Minister Depuy de Lome in which he called President McKinley a weak politician, heightened anti‐Spanish feelings in the United States as well. On February 15, 1898, less than a week after the letter appeared in the press, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor with the loss of 260 men. Although the cause of the explosion could not be determined, Hearst loss no time in blaming Spain for the incident, his newspapers declaring “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” McKinley did not want open hostilities, and there is ample evidence that Spain was ready to make major concessions in Cuba, but public opinion demanded action. The two countries were at war on April 21.
The first victory of the Spanish‐American War came far from Cuba, in the Phillipines. On May 1, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron destroyed or captured the entire Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. American forces took Manila with the help of Filipino insurrectionists and began the military occupation of the islands in August. In June, 17,000 American troops, a combination of the regular Army and volunteers (including a cavalry regiment popularly known as the “Rough Riders,” organized by Theodore Roosevelt), landed in Cuba. Strategic points on the island fell to the Americans in two major land engagements on July 1, and the American fleet made short work of the Spanish ships that tried to run the blockade of Santiago harbor a few days later. By July 26, Spain was asking for peace, and the armistice to end what was called the “splendid little war” was signed on August 12. Of the almost 5,500 men who died during the war, less than 400 were killed in battle, the majority falling victim to diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. To many, this seemed a small price to pay for an empire.
At the start of the war, the United States had disavowed all territorial claims to Cuba, but this pledge did not apply to other strategic islands or Spanish possessions. While Cuba became independent under the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), which formally ended the Spanish‐American War, Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States. The United States also gained control of the Philippines in return for a payment to Spain of $20 million. American acquisition of the Philippines was the most controversial aspect of the war, and the dissension was reflected in the debate between the imperialists and anti‐imperialists in the Senate regarding the ratification of the treaty. The Filipinos had fully expected the United States to grant them independence after Spain was defeated, and when that did not occur, a revolt against American rule began. Fought from 1899 to 1902, the Philippine Insurrection was more costly than the Spanish‐American War. Over 125,000 American troops were sent to the Philippines and fought a protracted guerrilla war that resulted in more than 4,000 U.S. and nearly 20,000 Filipino combat deaths. The cost of administering an empire proved high indeed.
China and the Open Door policy. By the 1890s, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan had carved out special trading privileges and spheres of influence for themselves in China. Not to be left out of a very lucrative market, Secretary of State John Hay issued a series of diplomatic notes between 1899 and 1900 that outlined what became known as the Open Door policy. The first note called on all countries to allow open access to trade with China. Even though formal responses were never received from any nation except Great Britain, Hay announced that everyone supported the American initiative. A new obstacle to trade in China arose in June 1900 when Chinese nationalists organized a revolt, the Boxer Rebellion, against foreign influence and laid siege to several embassies in Peking. Afraid that the revolt would be used as an excuse to break up the Chinese Empire, Hay called on all countries to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of China. On August 14, a joint American, British, German, Russian, and Japanese expeditionary force arrived in Peking and put down the rebellion. The United States would continue to make its presence felt in Asia as well as the Caribbean and Central America in the first decades of the twentieth century.