Imperialism (Possession of Colonies) Issue

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Imperialism is a policy aimed at the extension of political, economic, and cultural control over areas beyond a nation's boundaries. It can be accomplished in one of four ways: by military conquest; by treaty; by lending money to a weak country and then taking over control when the recipient country is unable to repay the debt; by economic penetration followed by intervention when the settlers from the expansionist country demand it. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the United States engaged in all these activities.

Modern imperialism was triggered by the Industrial Revolution, which so increased the productive capacity of the major European states that they were forced to seek overseas markets and sources for raw materials. This process began around 1870. The United States joined the competition late because the country had been preoccupied with westward expansion across the North American continent.

Until the 1890s overseas expansion was not a matter of high priority, interest in the acquisition of Cuba peaked from time to time, especially during the 1850s. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and established a presence in Samoa during the 1870s. The importance of Hawaii was recognized early in the nineteenth century; by 1875 a treaty made Hawaii a virtual protectorate of the United States and gave the country control of Pearl Harbor.

American imperialism received new impetus during with the Spanish-American War (1898), when the press stimulated a spirit of nationalism. Between 1895 and 1898 the native Cubans were in revolt against an oppressive Spanish regime. Major American newspapers gave the rebellion extensive and sympathetic coverage, which fueled demands for action. The United States demanded a settlement and sent the battleship Maine to Cuba to protect American interests. When it blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, hostilities became a certainty. The war in the Caribbean began in April and lasted only until August 1898. The conflict included U.S. invasions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In addition, during the height of wartime enthusiasm, Hawaii was annexed. Early in the war the United States, by means of a law known as the Teller Amendment, had denied any ambition to take over Cuba. However, the actual conquest of Cuba during the war naturally raised the question of the status of the island in relation to the United States.

The war was formally concluded by the Treaty of Paris of 1898 in which Spain ceded Guam and Puerto Rico and sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. Spain also gave up her claim to Cuba which remained under American military occupation from 1898 to 1902.

During the war attitudes shifted among many groups in U.S. society and the desire for territorial expansion matured. It was especially well developed among business leaders, advocates of a large navy, and influential politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and John Hay. They came to be known collectively as the "Imperialists." They argued that territories won with U.S. blood should not be given up, that ownership of overseas territories would be good for business and trade, and that to be a great nation, the United States had to have a great navy (which, of course, required coaling stations and bases all around the globe).

Not everyone agreed with the Imperialists. The opponents of expansion, including former President Grover Cleveland, author Samuel Clemens, and Progressive Jane Addams, were given the name "Anti-Imperialists." They argued that conquest was incompatible with U.S. tradition, and that the economic advantages of overseas possessions would be offset by the dangers of potential conflict with other nations. The debate on Imperialism raged on until February 6, 1899, when the Treaty of Paris was narrowly ratified by two votes.

American expansion did not end with the conclusion of the war. In Cuba, a U.S. influence remained, although United States troops were withdrawn in 1902. Cuba was forced to accept the terms of the Platt Amendment, which permitted U.S. intervention and reduced Cuba to the status of an American protectorate. This relationship endured until 1934 and led to substantial U.S. economic penetration.

United States' expansion in the Caribbean continued. In 1903 the United States fomented a revolution in Panama, which separated the province from Columbia. The United States and the new Republic of Panama immediately concluded a treaty, which allowed the United States to build a canal in Panama on land leased for 100 years. The Panama Canal was built over a period of 10 years from 1904 to 1914, and its very existence required a United States presence in the Caribbean. The importance of the region to the United States was also reflected in the so-called "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt (190109) declared that the U.S. reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of smaller western hemisphere nations (whom the U.S. policy makers sometimes called "banana republics") should these smaller countries fail to meet their financial obligations to European creditors. The United States would reorganize the repayment schedule to prevent invasion by the European creditors. During the next few years this policy was applied in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

The Dominican Republic went bankrupt in 1904. The following year the United States took over control of the country's customs houses and the administration of its finances. Marines were inserted in 1916 to maintain order and the Dominican Republic remained under American military government until 1924. Even after the marines were withdrawn, U.S. financial control continued until 1941. Meanwhile private U.S. interests gained control of the financial affairs of the country and 30 percent of the sugar industry.

In 1915, in order to prevent possible occupation by German creditors, the U.S. intervened in Haiti and remained there until 1934. The American presence was based upon a treaty that allowed for American control of Haiti's finances and defenses, but the intervention in Haiti was deeply resented by the Haitian people, even though it brought infrastructure repair and improved health standards.

During the early twentieth century U.S. Marines entered Nicaragua on several occasions, at the request of the government, to maintain order. Moreover, there was an extensive financial connection. By 1913 U.S. interests handled 30 percent of Nicaragua's imports and bought 56 percent of exports. During the next few years U.S. businesses assumed almost complete control of the nation's finances. President Calvin Coolidge sent the Marines back into the country in 1925 to help put down a revolution and to protect U.S. interests. The Marines did not leave again until 1933.

During the era of U.S. expansionist activities abroad there was also a vast increase in overseas investments, which rose by 500 percent between 1898 and 1914. Canada and Mexico were the leading targets for U.S. investments. In the former, where the major interests were manufactured goods, chemicals, and lumber, the increase was from $189.7 million to $867 million. In Mexico the increase was from $49 million to $336 million. There, investments were concentrated in extractive industries like mining and oil as well as in railroads. In Central and South America, U.S. investments totaled $458 million by 1914. The main interests in those regions were fruit and mining. Investments in oil did not begin to expand until later.

Investments in Asia also increased, but not to the extent predicted by the Imperialists of 1898, who had argued that possession of the Philippines would open vast markets and sources of raw materials, especially in China. However despite major efforts on the part of the U.S. government to promote trade and investments in the Far East, trade did not flourish. From 1898 to 1914, U.S. exports to Asia increased from $39.2 million to $380.2 million. Although the latter figure may seem large, it represented only 6.05 percent of all U.S. trade. U.S. economic penetration in the Far East did not develop to the level that had been predicted because of the poverty in the region and the determined opposition of competitive nations, especially Japan.

Overall, U.S. imperial expansion was not as successful as many people had hoped. The interventions were expensive and often frustrating because they caused bitterness and resentment among the people of the affected countries. Moreover, as U.S. productivity rose, businesses sought to expand their markets in the Western Hemisphere rather than in the Far East. This required the promotion of good will, not tension. So the Age of Imperialism waned.

In 1934 Congress passed legislation providing for Philippine independence in 10 years; in Latin America a new "Good Neighbor" policy replaced the Roosevelt Corollary. Troops were removed from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and treaties with Cuba (1934) and Panama (1939) ended their protectorate status. At an international conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1933, the United States formally renounced intervention.

But, after the 1959 revolution in Cuba, the Cold War priorities of the U.S. dictated a new round of intervention by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Cuba, Honduras, Chile, Nicaragua, and a number of other countries.

See also: Big Stick Diplomacy, Dollar Diplomacy


Beismer, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 18981900. Chicago, IL: Imprint Publications, 1968.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuba-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. 2 Vols. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 18901915. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1967.

Munro, Dana G. Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 19001920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Pratt, Julius W. America's Colonial Empire. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1950.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Williams, William A. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Norton, 1972.

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Imperialism (Possession of Colonies) Issue

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