views updated May 29 2018


Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


Imperialism is a term used to describe the domination of one state over a number of others. In the early twenty–first century imperialism is generally thought to be a bad idea. After World War II ended in 1945—and increasingly during the late twentieth century—most people came to view imperialist policies as both morally reprehensible and as economically unsound.

During the Cold War both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were officially opposed to imperialism and generally tried to prevent other countries from pursuing such policies. This was partly because their two ideologies, communism in the Soviet Union and democratic capitalism in the U.S., were opposed to imperialism. They also had national interests that conflicted with those of the major European imperial powers. In addition, the many newly independent countries of the Third World opposed European imperialism, which they believed had been only recently bad for them.

who controls government? Nation–state

how is government put into power? Conquest

what roles do the people have? Provide military and labor services

who controls production of goods? Nation–state

who controls distribution of goods? Nation–state

major figures Genghis Khan; Hernán Cortés

historical example Mongol Empire, 1206–1368

But imperialism has not always been so unpopular. Indeed, many countries have openly and aggressively pursued imperialist expansion. Throughout much of human history there have been writers who have extolled imperial conquest, politicians that have designed policies to enable imperial rule, and peoples who have supported imperial designs.


Historically, there have been many forms of imperialism. Indeed, arguably, the whole history of human civilization may be written as the rise and fall of consecutive imperial political powers. These started to occur after the Neolithic (or farming) revolution, which led humans to settle and create political units capable of organizing political, administrative, economic, and military power on a large scale. The first instances of these political enterprises occurred where fertile arable land, water, staple food crops, and suitable climate and geography intersected with the arrival of human beings emigrating, at first from Africa and increasing their numbers substantially.

The parts of the world which allowed the formation of the first substantial states were the Middle East (particularly along the Nile and Euphrates rivers), in the river valleys of north India, and in the coastal lands and large river valleys of China. Typically, an imperial order was preceded by a system of smaller states coexisting with one another in relations that varied from amicable trade and cultural intercourse to violent conflict and war. Such multi–state systems broke down when one of the participating states was able to accumulate sufficient power to overwhelm the others and replace a society of competing and cooperating states with imperial rule. This was the manner in which, for examples, the Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, and Aztec empires were formed.

The ancient imperial states of Rome and China were created at almost the same time by similar processes and sustained by broadly similar methods of military force and then administrative efficiency. On the other hand, empires based on the outstanding abilities of a singular individual—Alexander the Great, who, according to legend, wept when he had no more worlds to conquer; Attila the Hun, who defeated the Roman imperial forces; the Mogul empires, which were later even more extensive—were based almost solely on military conquest, and often did not long survive their creator's death.

The more recent cases of European imperialism are interesting for two reasons. First, attempts to displace the state system within Europe by an imperial domination of one state have failed since the collapse of the Roman Empire. The resulting constant competition helped create the expansionist tendencies of the European system as a whole. Secondly, the collection of European states expanded their own system throughout the world through a number of competing yet cooperating imperial orders, thereby developing the modern global state system.

Recent European–based imperial expansion is often treated as if it were the only instance of imperial subjugation by one political entity over another. This is an extremely ahistorical perspective. Competition within and between political structures, sometimes involving territorial expansion and imperial conquest, is part of the process of human evolution. The most recent forms have often—but not always—involved the subjugation of non–Europeans by European peoples. But this is more a reflection of the distribution of power in the modern era than it is of the European peoples having a more deeply developed imperial ambition than others.

Imperial expansion is as much an expression of power relations as it is of cultural intentions.


c. 10,000 B.C.:      The Neolithic revolution begins

c. 330 B.C.:      Alexander the Great conquers much of the Middle East, North Africa, and India

221 B.C.:      The Chinese Imperial state is founded

1071:      Ottoman Turks defeat the Byzantine armies at Manzikert, making Asia Minor Turkish

1207:      Genghis Khan begins the Mongol conquest of China

1521:      Hernán Cortés defeats the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) during the conquest of New Spain

1526:      The Mogul Empire is created in India

1840:      Great Britain defeats China in the Opium War and will dominate the world economy for fifty years

1878:      Restoration of the Japanese Meiji begins seven decades of imperial expansion

c. 1880:      European nations begin the "Scramble for Africa"

1918:      Defeat in World War I signals the end of the Ottoman Empire

Ancient Imperialisms

The first three areas to be brought under intensive agricultural cultivation and thereby support large settled populations with stable political entities were in the Middle East, northern India, and China. In each area, competing states soon vied for supremacy and one emerged, for some time, as the dominant imperial power.

For several thousand years in the Middle East, the Egyptian state, ruled by Pharaohs and based on the alluvial soil and annual floods of the Nile Valley, was the dominant military force. It rested on a large population, mass infantry, advanced horse–utilizing military technology, and an agricultural output well organized by a sophisticated state administration. It successfully competed with other neighboring entities, particularly the Persian Empire, which was able to build a similar edifice on the basis of the Euphrates River.

In northern India, the two great rivers, the Ganges and the Indus, also supported state systems, which were from time to time to generate dominant powers. This process is described in The Arthashastra by Kautilya, a fourth–century Indian political philosopher often compared to the Italian philosopher Machiavelli, whose learned works were designed to assist a ruler in his dealings with rivals, his subjects, and other states. This system was to be later subjugated by the Moguls.

In east Asia, Chinese civilization also supported a period known in Chinese history as that of the Warring States. This came to an end in the third century B.C., when these diverse but culturally similar states were unified by Ch'in to create the Chinese imperial state.

In the Mediterranean world, Greek civilization also threw up a city–state system 2,500 years ago. Like contemporary China and India, and later Europe and Central America, the Greek world comprised a number of discrete sovereign authorities welded together by a common civilization. Wars between the Greek states were common. Indeed, the first study of international relations deals with one of the longest of the generalized wars between them. Thucydides' History of The Peloponnesian Wars, which describes a state system not unlike the modern one, marked by trade, diplomacy, competing national ambitions, internal disputes over power and policy, and war. These states coexisted in this form until they were overwhelmed by one of their number, when Alexander the Great of Macedon united them all by conquest in the fourth century B.C. He then went on to create, also by conquest, an empire which stretched from Greece to Egypt to India.

Alexander made architectural and civic improvements in vanquished cities, particularly those in or near Greece—probably because he felt the communities had lost too many Greek characteristics due to centuries of Persian rule. Yet he respected the customs and religion of all conquered territories, although this was likely done more for political reasons than benevolence on his part. As Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote in Alexander: "He thus made firm his hold on the territory he conquered, not only by the best measures for military occupation, but by fostering political good–will in the cities."

The Empire of Alexander the Great, however, had little firmer basis than his own ambition and military genius, and disintegrated shortly after his death into a few separate regimes. The region of the eastern Mediterranean then reverted to its more common condition of a number of competing state entities. This ended with the imposition of Roman imperial power during the centuries before the birth of Christ.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was based on the Mediterranean coastal region with the water transport system at its core. It was created by conquests, which elevated Rome from one city–state among many, to the dominant imperial power. As Roman arms extended its power, so its techniques and material basis expanded. Initially, Roman power depended on a powerful infantry, but this was augmented by other military arts learned in the long process of conquering the Mediterranean seaboard from the Atlantic to the Persian Empire. The Romans were governed by an aristocratic, representative, and republican form of government. Their imperial expansion and then rule did not depend on the whims of one or indeed a generation of military conquerors. Only after the empire was stabilized did the Emperor replace the Senate.

The Mediterranean enabled Roman galleys to transport military power, food, and other supplies along internal lines of communication. Vines, olives, fish, pastoral animals, and wheat provided the staple foods. The Romans then added a system of roads, water supplies, and cities to this imperial economy. Roman legions could then both protect the frontier against barbarians and move quickly along internal lines of transportation to deal with rebellions. They used a very advanced and detailed administration based on a common law for all citizens of the empire, although slaves may have comprised one–half the population of the Italian peninsula at the peak of the empire. Although Rome was the principal beneficiary of this system, local oligarchies (government by a small faction of persons or families) were brought sufficiently within its orbit to provide it with the support base to maintain the empire for hundreds of years.

This empire was based initially on military conquest that extended it from England, through Germany, the Balkans, the Levant (countries on the eastern

shores of the Mediterranean Sea), and Egypt—for long its granary—to the North African Atlantic seaboard and the rest of North Africa. Its economy was based on slavery, a labor force that was, during the early empire, supplemented by continuous conquest and enslavement of the defeated peoples. In its later and declining years, it was sustained by extensive use of increasingly murderous games, which may have consumed a quarter of imperial economic output by the third century, in order to keep the urban mobs docile politically by providing "bread and circuses."

The Western Roman Empire lasted for eight hundred years, and then was overrun by the barbarian tribes from the Eurasian steppes. The Eastern Empire, centered on Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), lasted longer in various forms, being progressively eroded until 1453 when it was also overrun by a barbarian tribe, the Ottoman Turks.

Gibbon's famous argument says that the Roman Empire fell because the adoption of Christianity sapped the early ferocity of the Romans and they lost the ability to rule fairly but, more importantly, harshly when the moment required. But, in addition, the Roman technical and organizational military advantages were sapped by years of revealing them to their opponents; the sources of slave power eroded with the end of conquests and were difficult to replace; and the skills of the Romans' opponents improved. As an imperial system, the Romans also probably lacked the incentive and initiatives to implement technological change in a manner that might have enabled their infantry to withstand the continual erosion of their capacity to master the cavalry of the horsemen of the steppes. In addition, the Empire was beset with internal divisions that periodically sparked civil wars. During its decline this produced the two empires, with Byzantine Constantinople surviving into the fifteenth century.

Chinese Empires

The Chinese imperial state, formed during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), lasted to the present era. China culture dates back to between 2,500 and 2,000 B.C. in what is now central China. Centuries of migration and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, and political organization recognizable as Chinese civilization.

After the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.) much of what became modern China was unified. In that year, the state of Ch'in, the most powerful of the Warring States, subjugated its rivals. The king of Ch'in consolidated his power, took the title of Emperor, and imposed Ch'in's centralized, non–hereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire.

The organizational and cultural continuity of the Middle Kingdom was then accompanied by cycles of rise and decline of imperial dynasties. Tyrannical dynasties were often followed by long periods of stability. Confucian thought concentrated on each person's place in society and harmony, rather than the rights of the individual: the scholar–officials had high social status and provided theories for maintaining social harmony, while the peasantry provided the food.

The alien peoples on the frontiers of Chinese civilization twice conquered China and established new dynasties, only to be absorbed into the system of culture and governance. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes were the first alien people to conquer all of China. It came under alien rule for the second time in the seventeenth century, when Manchu conquerors came again from the north.

But for centuries, the only foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less–developed societies along their borders. The Chinese believed they were the self–sufficient center of the universe, surrounded by inferior barbarian peoples. This view was not disturbed until the nineteenth century and China's confrontation with the West. China then assumed its relations with Europe would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved between the Emperor and the lesser states on China's borders, including Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand.

The imperial expansion of the Chinese state was undertaken by military expeditions pushing out the frontiers in the north and south. To defend against barbarians, the fortified walls built by the various warring states were connected to make the Great Wall. A number of public works projects were also undertaken to consolidate and strengthen imperial rule, requiring enormous levies of manpower, resources, and repressive measures. The imperial system initiated during the Ch'in dynasty set a pattern that was developed over the next two millennia.

Han Dynasty During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) a civil service examination system was initiated and paper developed. The Han Dynasty also developed its military powers and expanded the empire westward as far as the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang, securing caravan traffic across the "silk route" to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of Vietnam and Korea in the second century B.C. The Han court developed the "tributary system," under which non–Chinese states were allowed semi–autonomy in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. But in 220, the Han imperial dynasty collapsed into nearly four centuries of rule by warlords, although technological advances continued, including gunpowder and advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography.

Ming Dynasty The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was founded by a Chinese peasant and peaked during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Chinese armies reconquered Annam and kept back the Mongols. A huge Chinese fleet sailed as far as the coast of Africa and many Asian nations sent tribute to the Chinese emperor. These Ming maritime expeditions stopped suddenly with the last voyage of the grand fleet in 1433. The great expense of large–scale maritime expeditions was abandoned for northern defenses against the Mongols. Conservative officials also believed naval expansion and commercial ventures were alien to Chinese ideas of government. The powerful Confucian bureaucracy wanted an agrarian–based society.

During the Ming Dynasty, with a population of 100 million and a prospering economy, arts, and political system, the Chinese believed that they had achieved the most complete civilization and that nothing foreign was needed. The Chinese entered a period described by Mark Elvin in The Pattern of the Chinese Past as high–level equilibrium, or stagnation.

Qing Dynasty Nonetheless, in 1644, the Manchus took Beijing and established the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911). Although the Manchus were not Han Chinese, they assimilated a great deal of Chinese culture during the conquest and retained many Ming institutions, including the civil service system. Confucian philosophy, emphasizing the obedience of subject to ruler, was enforced as the state ideology. The Manchus conquered Outer Mongolia and Central Asia to the Pamir Mountains, and established a protectorate over Tibet. Under Manchu rule the Chinese empire achieved its largest territorial extent and received tribute from many other states.

New threats to the integrity of the Chinese Empire then came by sea from the south as Europeans began arriving in the sixteenth century. The success of the Qing Dynasty in maintaining the old order proved to be a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. Centuries of peace and self–satisfaction had hardened the attitudes of the ruling elite and its power.

China proved unable to meet the new challenges, and the Qing Dynasty collapsed and ended the two–thousand–year–old system of dynastic imperial rule. It was already experiencing economic difficulties, as over 300 million Chinese had no industry or trade to absorb the labor supply. Scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order, and revolts erupted in the early nineteenth century. Secret societies gained ground, combining anti– Manchu subversion with banditry. The European imperial powers pressed onto this weakened state.

Collapse of China's empire First, in 1557, the Portuguese established a foothold at Macao from which they monopolized foreign trade at Canton. Soon after the Spanish arrived, followed by the British and the French. Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries–old ritual imposed on envoys from China's tributary states as the imperial court expected that the Europeans would be treated as cultural and political tributaries.

The first exception was Russia, which began seizing Chinese territory. The Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 with Russia established a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Amur River. It was China's first bilateral agreement with a European power. In 1727, the Treaty of Kiakhta defined the remainder of the eastern Sino–Russian border. But other Western efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed, the official Chinese assumption being that the empire was not in need of foreign products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Canton.

Then, in the 1840 Opium War, China was humiliated militarily by superior British weaponry and technology and faced territorial dismemberment. In 1911 the dynastic system of imperial China collapsed into civil war and was eventually replaced by communism in 1949. The communist historians then wrote their own history of China, built on a dogmatic Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally, socialism. It conveniently ignored Chinese imperialism.


Imperialism is a practice that is designed to benefit the imperial power, and not those who are subjugated by it. It is most rapacious when the imperial power is a proponent of naked force and simple looting, as with Genghis Khan, and most benign when pursuing advantageous commercial exchange, like the U.S. Nonetheless, there may be collateral benefits to the subjugated power because more advanced techniques of production and even cultural practices are introduced to the weaker and subjugated society. This conception has been criticized by post–colonial theories, who argue that all societies are morally equal and none benefit from being conquered.

The pursuit of imperialism usually involves an imperial or metropolitan government of a substantial state that is well organized and has a coherent identity. This state is often distinguished by its military power which may arise from its having a large population or territory, being well organized for war, or having developed some military technology which gives it the capacity to win wars and extend its rule over other states. The people who rule this state then will need the ambition to use that power to extend their rule. Historically, most countries that acquire considerable power usually develop the ambition to use it. This is not always the case, however, and imperial China did not expand in the late–fifteenth century although it clearly had the naval power to do so. The state then uses its power to conquer other societies. Generally, it will have to pursue a general systemic policy of aggression and subjugation in order to qualify for the description "imperialist." A state which conquers one or two neighboring territories would usually be described as a merely regionally aggressive state. It then rules the conquered territory to its advantage by deploying skills other than sheer force to maintain its domination. This involves the establishment of administrative, trading, financial, and ideological systems which maintain imperial rule and ensures that it benefits the imperial country— since a loss–making colony is not worth maintaining. The conquering state often, and more commonly at least in the modern era, uses an ideology to disguise and justify its behavior. Occasionally this ideology—such as Islam or communism—may indeed be the driving force of the imperial impulse, but this situation rarely lasts long if the conquests are only maintained at a cost and for ideological gratification. In any case, such unprofitable imperial adventures run the risk of quickly generating imperial overstretch and subsequent contraction. Most imperial states are then eventually defeated by internal decay, resistance within the imperial domains, an inability to retain conquests earlier achieved, or by other imperial powers defeating them in the contest for resources.

Whether an imperial system survived its initial creation depended on the capacity of the ascendant imperial power to consolidate and maintain its rule against both internal revolt and external attack. The skills required for this task were quite different from the capacity to impose an imperial order in the first place. The administrator with bureaucratic procedures and records needed to replace the soldier.

The Imperialist System

The imperialist impulse and process generates several types of state, which may be recognized in the historical accounts so far given.

Many historians feel that at the core of the imperial project is an imperial power, run by people with ambition, determination, and a murderous taste for expansion. It also, importantly, needs the power to translate the ambition into practice. The experience generates an arrogant culture, which typically despises others and to some degree glorifies the violence, bloodshed, and mayhem which violent conquest requires. Individuals of ferocious character usually command.

The recipient of these ambitions is the colonial society, subjugated by force of arms and quiescent either before, during, or after the imposition of alien rule. Since its own national culture becomes subordinate it then, typically, in some measure becomes self–deprecating and values the culture of the imperial power, often more than its own. It is also usually less well developed, although this may be restricted to solely the military arts. And the wealth generated by the colony must not only be siphoned off to the imperial power, but that which remains organized and distributed by it.

Empires also create settler states, either the better to consolidate their rule and the exploitation that accompanies it, or for reasons of strategy in which the settler communities can be better relied on than those who are merely conquered. The Romans often settled their frontier provinces with retired soldiers; the Norman nobility was awarded portions of the conquered English realm; the Spanish settled South America, and the British North America and Australasia. The fate of these settler states is often problematic when the empire that aided them recedes. European–dominated states remain secure in the Americas; yet Russians remain stranded in the former republics of the Soviet state; while the settler–dominated state apparatuses in Southern Africa have yielded to indigenous political power.

Countries Based on the Imperialist System

The forms of the imperial state are almost too diverse to accept categorization; the impulse to empire lies deep in human nature. The ancient world offers many examples of talented megalomaniacs successfully pursuing imperial conquests—Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn—only for these to be abandoned after the leader's death.

It also offers, in Rome, a long–surviving imperial system of rule based on sophisticated military organization, technology, order, and imperial law, but still dependent on suppression and slavery. Similarly, China developed through an integration of a civilization with an empire from about the second century B.C. that was to last until 1911, and arguably to the present day. Islam, as a religious empire, was based on conquest and then conversion to a religion and has also survived. The Ottomans took over the Levant and became dominant and Islamic, but still an empire based on foreign control, and eventually collapsed. The Aztecs, on the other hand, were very primitive in their system of subjugation and sacrifices and quickly collapsed, as did the Zulus when confronted by superior external power.

The modern world offers similar diversity. The Hapsburg Empire was founded in dynastic power yet expanded into a global system of bullion imperialism and military districts justified by Catholic doctrine. The British Empire was always commercial, but augmented by settlers, first in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and then in the far flung territories outside Europe. The Napoleonic Empire was one that started with a revolutionary imperialism that even appealed to the supreme intellect of Beethoven before descending into a more transparent French dictatorship. German imperialism and military conquest in both World War I and World War II was fueled by nationalist ambition to acquire resources in Eastern Europe. Japanese expansion and the creation of the Great East Asian Co–prosperity Sphere, with Japan and its Emperor at the head, was also clearly self–interested. Soviet imperialism, like Islamic imperialism, was inexplicable without reference to ideology and strategy. U.S. imperial ambitions have always been tied to free trade and commerce, foundations laid by the British in the Thirteen Colonies.

Imperialist states, then, have been governed by: Egyptian Pharaohs, noble Greeks, famous Roman authors, Chinese emperors, pagan cavalry, Islamic zealots, Turkish warlords, African chiefs, Amerindian princes, Spanish Catholic grandees, English Queens, Russian empresses, French revolutionaries, German Kaisers, American Republicans, and Russian communists. Few systems of rule fail to answer the imperial call if the opportunity arises.


In the pre–modern world the pursuit of empire was a common aspiration. States were formed, related with one another and competed for imperial dominion. The size of the empires these states could create were dependent on: its initial military capabilities; the size of the imperial economy; the administrative structures they could devise and sustain; and continuing military power they could effectively deploy against hostile forces of both rebellion and invasion at point of threat. They usually required ambitious, ferocious and determined leadership. The modern era was to expand these capabilities, and so the size of the empires they supported.

The Mongol Empires

Genghis Khan (1162–1227) expressed his motives: "The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."

Genghis was born Temujin in 1162 on the great Eurasian heartland steppes. In 1187 the Mongols made him their great leader and gave him the name Genghis Khan (universal ruler). But the Mongol shepherds and horse people were not then united into one political entity. Genghis soon defeated rival Mongol clans, and in 1206 he was declared Khan of Khans and king of "all people who lived in felt tents."

Expansion Genghis then concentrated his forces against other empires in order to expand his own. In 1207 he began the conquest of modern China, then divided into three separate empires: the Qin; Tangut to the north; and the Sung Empire in the south. The Mongols subdued the Tanguts in 1209 and then campaigned against the Qin Empire in 1211. Genghis continued his army's advance until 1215, when modern Beijing was conquered and most of the Qin Empire came under his control. In 1218 Genghis turned on the Kwarezm Empire—which encompassed modern Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkestan—and led a force of 90,000 men from the north and sent a general with 30,000 men to attack from the east. Genghis' army was victorious and a full–scale invasion of the Kwarezm Empire took place. The entire area was added to the Mongol Empire.

Genghis started his conquests with the advantage of a mass, highly skilled, extremely mobile cavalry force, which, although often outnumbered, overcame adverse numbers by maneuverability and ferocity. As with other imperialists, each victory taught Genghis new methods of warfare, which were used to make his forces stronger. With the Kwarezm Empire destroyed, an army of 20,000 was sent to Russia to seize more territory. In 1223, those Mongol warriors beat a Russian army of 80,000 and began the conquest of the Russian principalities. The Mongols fought their way through Russia and into Europe and destroyed entire cities in Hungary, Poland, and Russia.

These triumphs were arrested by the death of Genghis Khan, who died from internal injuries when he fell from his horse during a hunt in 1227. This sent the advancing armies back to create a new leader. Genghis had united the Mongols and created the largest empire ever built in the life of one man. "With Heaven's aid I have conquered for you a huge empire," Genghis told his sons before he died. "But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That is left for you."

The Empire was divided between Genghis' three sons: the Golden Horde in west Asia, including Russia; the Middle East Khanate; and the main area of the East Asia Khanate, including the Mongol homeland. Despite this, the Mongol Empire was still controlled by one man, Ogadai (1185–1241), who was officially elected Khan in 1229. Ogadai was a ruthless barbarian who set about expanding the Great Mongol Empire.

Genghis left orders to increase the size of the Mongol Empire, in particular by conquering China. It only took five years for the Mongol armies to complete this and the Chinese emperor was finally killed in 1234. The following year, the Mongols sent troops both east and west to capture the Asian lands lost after Genghis' death, to reoccupy the Korean peninsula, and to advance into Europe. One hundred and fifty thousand Mongol troops attacked Europe in 1236 and captured many new territories. That same year, Korea was reoccupied and a rebellion there was crushed.


Genghis Khan

According to legend, Genghis Khan came into the world in 1162 grasping a lump of clotted blood, a favorable omen for a future warrior. He was named Tumujin by his father Yesugei, who was chieftan of a sizeable camp of various clans. While growing up, Temujin used his greatest assets—personal charisma and shrewdness—to climb the ranks of the various Mongol clans. He won a power struggle against a former ally and was proclaimed Genghis Khan (universal ruler) in 1187.

After becoming supreme ruler of the Mongols, Genghis Khan restructured the Mongolian tribes into a primarily military organization. The population was divided into military units of tens, hundreds, and thousands, with households and cattle to supply them.

This military reorganization of the now–unified Mongol state allowed Genghis Khan to conquer first neighboring states and then more distant empires. When outnumbered, the Mongols built man–sized puppets and lit hundreds of extra campfires on the steppes to confuse their enemy. Genghis took advantage of the enemy's size by forcing them to fight with their backs to a mountain; from that position, they had little choice but to retreat up the mountain's sides as the Khan's troops slaughtered them mercilessly. Another favorite trick of the Mongol forces was to advance upon their foe in "terrifying silence" and then burst into earsplitting shrieks as they charged. By 1227, Genghis had annexed the territory from western Russia to China.

The conquered populations were ruthlessly suppressed and then exploited. Many resisting cities were burned and destroyed; conquered people were subjected to heavy taxation and forced labor; and even if they surrendered, they had to pay heavy tribute. For most peoples, Genghis Kahn was a savage tyrant.

Genghis died of complications from falling off a horse in August of 1227. He was buried in northeast Mongolia, and it is said that forty beautiful maidens and forty horses were slaughtered at his grave. His legacy of brutal conquest remained alive. Under his son Ogodei, Khan of Khans, the Mongols brought to submission southeast Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and reached within thirty miles of Vienna. Only the death of Ogodei in 1241 turned back the horde, which probably would have crushed Western Europe as easily as it had the rest of the world, and vastly altered the course of history.

Genghis Khan's cruelty is the stuff of legend, but the carnage he left in his wake was often a simple matter of expediency; it was easier to slaughter a city than to post valuable troops in order to keep it. And today, in the country of Mongolia, Genghis Khan is a legendary hero who is even credited with introducing democratic reforms. His vast empire is said to have allowed trade to flourish between different countries, encouraging continued trade along the famous Silk Road and forming additional trade routes throughout the vast Eurasian continent. It also linked Western and Eastern cultures, allowing them to exchange ideas and technology.

This view of Genghis Kahn is described in Paula Sabloff's book Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan. In the same way, some Marxists extol that other great barbarian warrior, Attila the Hun, for having humbled the slave–owning empire of Rome. A savage conqueror can, thus, be readily made into a national hero. However, many modern historians feel that Genghis was probably no worse than any other conqueror of medieval times—he simply became the most infamous because he accomplished the most.

After the Mongol conquest of China there opened a vast international trade, and along the routes people exchanged ideas. A wealth of information flowed along with the goods. The Chinese people were not forced to adopt Mongol customs or religion, but there

certainly were restrictions. People were not allowed to gather in public or own weapons of any kind. The Khans were probably weary of the sheer numbers of the Chinese. The conquered peoples did not like the occupation and its restrictions, but probably found ways to adjust and go on living as normal a life as possible. Many Chinese even served as low–ranking officials in the Mongol government.

The Mongol army conquered lands well into Europe between 1236 and 1242. The troops entered Russia and in 1237 attacked the city of Riazan, which became the first of many to fall to the Mongols. Riazan was offered the standard Mongols terms: surrender, and hand over one tenth of everything, including people, and pay constant tribute. Only then would the Mongols spare the city. The city refused and it was destroyed. Throughout 1237 and 1238 several Russian principalities were similarly conquered. One of the last cities in Russia to be conquered was Kiev, when it too fell to the Mongol catapults and poisoned arrows in 1240. The city was burned to ashes and most of the population slaughtered. The Mongol armies then moved on and between 1240 and 1241 seized many cities in Poland and Hungary, including the cities of Buda and Pest, which were all but destroyed. (These two cities would unite to become Budapest in 1872.) The Mongols then continued towards Vienna. During these battles, well over 220,000 Polish, Hungarian, and other soldiers were killed by the Mongols.

Breakdown of the Mongol empire In early 1242 the Mongols reached the outskirts of Vienna. But Ogadai had died a month earlier, and the Mongols retreated to their Russian territory to choose a new Khan. No Mongol invasion of Europe was to take place again, although the Mongols remained in control of Russia for the next 250 years.

In 1259 two men were declared Khan. The internal conflict that followed was a major turning point of the Mongol Empire. It was never united again after 1260. Kublai was proclaimed the only Khan in 1264, and moved the Mongol capital from central Mongolia to Beijing. He then spent most of his life in China, where he enjoyed the culture and felt more at home. There was a loss in communication and messages took longer to travel across the empire. As a consequence, many Mongols could not relate to China, and the coherence of the empire was lost. This left much of the empire to local self–rule and the empire Genghis Khan had created began to crumble.

Despite the internal breaking up of the Mongol Empire, Kublai continued to expand its territory, and in 1267 started to bring all of modern China within the Mongol Empire. This gave the Chinese a national territory that survives to this day. In 1274, Kublai decided to expand his empire beyond China and attacked the islands of Japan. But typhoon turned these campaigns into dismal failures.

Kublai died in 1294, leaving the legacy of a unified China. But by 1335 the Mongols were forced out of the Middle East, and revolution and attacks left much of the empire in pieces. Finally, in 1368 the Yuan Dynasty, started by Kublai in China, was overthrown by the Chinese and replaced with the Ming Dynasty, who drove out all remaining Mongol armies. The Mongol Empire had lasted from 1206, when Genghis was proclaimed Khan of Khans, until 1368. Thus, one of the largest empires ever created was destroyed in 162 years.

The impact of these Mongol empires was often arrested by the deaths of individual leaders and only sustained where the conquering military forces were able to assume ruling–class status within existing state structures—as occurred with the Manchu Dynasty in China. Generally their motivation was the ambition of ferocious leaders and loot for their followers.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire

The Turks emerged in the mid–sixth century as a nomad empire in the heart of Asia in what is now Turkestan. The Turks then scattered over a vast area of the Russian steppes, speaking related dialects. From the ninth century, Turks began to enter the Arab Caliphate as slaves or adventurers serving as soldiers and so infiltrated the world of Islam. The Caliph Mu'tasim (833–842) was the first Muslim ruler to surround himself with a Turkish guard. Turks rose to high rank—commanding armies, governing provinces, and sometimes ruling as independent princes. The disintegration of the Abbasid Empire and then the Samanid collapse at the end of the tenth century opened the Persian and Arab territories to Turkish nomad tribes.

Growth of the empire In 956 the Seljuk Turks embraced Islam and soon after so did many other Western Turks. In the late–eleventh century the Seljuks entered West Asia and prolonged the life of the moribund caliphate for another two hundred years, took Asia Minor away from Christendom, and opened the path to the later Ottoman invasion of the Levant and Europe.

In 962 one of the Turkish officers, Alp–tagin, seized the town and fortress of Ghazna in what is now Afghanistan. The Kara–Khanids, another Turkish people, crossed the Jaxartes River and captured the city of Bukhara in western Asia in 999. Turks also made expeditions into India, then a mosaic of principalities with no strong state capable of resisting invaders. They looted Hindu shrines and destroyed idolatry in the name of Allah and his Prophet.

The Turks then drove towards the Byzantine frontiers and produced a social crisis in the Persian and Arab lands. The nomadic Turks raided estates, destroyed crops, robbed merchant caravans, and fought other nomads—such as Kurds and Bedouin Arabs— for the possession of wells and grazing lands. They began raiding Byzantine territory. Turkish armies pushed into the valleys of Armenia and Georgia, and into Anatolia. An invasion of Egypt was only abandoned at the news of an impending Byzantine counterstroke.

The Roman Emperor, Romanus Diogenes, tried to clear the Turks out of his dominions, but the Turks met him at Manzikert (in modern eastern Turkey) in 1071 and inflicted a catastrophic Byzantine defeat, making Asia Minor Turkish. This struck a fatal blow at Christian and imperial power in Anatolia. With the Byzantine army defeated, the Turks spread over the central plateau, first in pastoral settlements, then taking possession of towns and fortresses. The Byzantine Empire faced total ruin.

In 1453, the Turks conquered the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Under Mehmed the Conqueror (1432–1481), the Ottomans rebuilt the devastated city. The Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, 1481–1566, shortly ensued, under three sultans: Bayezid II (reigned 1481–1512), Selim I (reigned 1512–1520), and Suleiman I the Magnificent (reigned 1520–1566). Bayezid extended the empire in Europe, added outposts along the Black Sea, put down revolts in Asia Minor, and turned the Ottoman fleet into a major Mediterranean naval power. Selim first eliminated all competition by having his brothers, their sons, and all but one of his own sons killed. During his short reign the Ottomans moved into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Arabia, and Egypt. At Mecca, the chief shrine of Islam, he took the title of caliph, ruler of all Muslims. The growth of the empire was for some time an impediment to European trade, and led European states to seek routes around Africa to China and India, an inconvenience that helped lead to the discovery of the New World.

The empire in its prime Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire to its zenith and from 1520 until 1566 ruled the most powerful state in the world. He more than doubled Ottoman territory, expanding it throughout the Balkans and Hungary to the gates of Vienna, captured Belgrade (1521) and Rhodes (1522), broke the military power of Hungary, and in 1529 lay unsuccessful siege to Vienna. He also waged three campaigns against Persia. Algiers fell to his navy in 1529 and Tripoli (now Libya) in 1551. In 1570, his successor, Selim the Sot, invaded Cyprus, then under Venetian jurisdiction. The Ottomans sacked the capital, Nicosia, and massacred 30,000 of its Greek inhabitants.

One reason the Ottoman Empire was able to survive as long as it did was the way the conquerors treated the ordinary people of their ever&dash∈tending empire. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Balkans. The Turks often acted with extreme prejudice toward military or government officials, but the people were free to practice their own religion, and mixed marriages were permitted, if not openly encouraged. Nonetheless, the burden of financing the empire often fell upon the conquered peoples in the form of taxation.

Decline of the empire The decline of the Ottoman Empire began in 1566. As Suleiman grew tired, his viziers, or prime ministers, took more authority. After his death the army gained control of the sultanate. This growing internal weakness was confronted by growing powers in the west. The nation–states of Europe emerged from the Middle Ages under strong monarchies and built armies and navies which were powerful enough to attack the decaying Ottoman Empire.

In 1571 the combined fleets of Venice, Spain, and the Papal States of Italy defeated the Turks at the great naval Battle of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. Although the empire rebuilt its navy, the central government became weaker and large parts of the empire began to act independently with nominal loyalty to the sultan. The army was still strong enough, however, to prevent provincial rebels from asserting complete control. Indeed, new campaigns were undertaken, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan seized, and the empire expanded to the peak of its territorial extent.

Reforms undertaken by seventeenth–century sultans did little to prevent decay. Beginning in 1683 with the attack on Vienna, repulsed in 1688 by Eugene of Savoy, the Ottomans were at war with European enemies for forty–one years. In this, the empire lost much of its Balkan territory and possessions on the shores of the Black Sea. In addition, the Austrians and Russians began to intervene on behalf of the sultan's Christian subjects.

The weakness of the central government and its military decline led to increasing loss of control over the provinces. Local rulers carved out regions in which they ruled directly, regardless sultan in Istanbul. Local populations often preferred their rule to the corrupt administration of the distant capital. The notables formed their own armies and collected their own taxes, sending only nominal contributions to the imperial treasury.

Under Mahmud II (1785–1839) the empire further declined, despite reforms in the army, government, and education. Greece won independence in 1829. Control of North Africa passed to local notables and in Egypt Muhammad Ali (1769–1849) set the foundation of an independent kingdom. In 1853, Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855) of Russia commented on the Ottoman Empire: "We have on our hands a sick man, a very sick man."

The Ottomans then developed strong ties with Germany, and fought on the Germans' side in World War I. Russia hoped to use the war to gain access to the Mediterranean and perhaps capture Constantinople, an aim frustrated by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its withdrawal from the war. Nonetheless, the Ottoman Empire was defeated. The punitive post–war settlement outraged the Turkish nationalists. In 1922 the last sultan, Mehmed VI (1861–1926), fled after the sultanate was abolished. A new republican government emerged at Ankara, capital of the new Turkish non–imperial nation–state.

The Indian Mogul Empire

Indus Valley civilization flourished in northern India from 2600 B.C. to 2000 B.C. The Aryans who invaded India in 1500 B.C. from the northwest found an already advanced civilization. They introduced Sanskrit and the Vedic religion, a forerunner of Hinduism, to the area. Buddhism was founded in the 6th century B.C. and spread throughout northern India, most notably by the great king Asoka (269–232 B.C.), who also unified most of the Indian subcontinent for the first time. But thereafter India was divided into warring states.

In the sixteenth century, Muslim invaders conquered these states and founded the great Mogul empire, centered on Delhi, which lasted until 1857. Babar (1482–1530), a Turkish–Mongol prince from Afghanistan and the founder of the Mogul Empire, invaded India in 1526. His grandson, Akbar the Great (1542–1605), strengthened and consolidated this empire. He was the greatest of the Mogul emperors and under his 49–year reign, conquered all of northern India and Afghanistan, and extended his rule far south. The long reign of his great–grandson, Aurangzeb (1618–1707), represented both the greatest extent of the Mogul empire.

The Moguls were a Muslim elite who ruled over a Hindu majority. Akbar maintained his rule by Mogul military might and religious tolerance. For employment in government positions, talent and ambition took precedence over ethnicity and religious faith. Akbar also took a great interest in the arts, particularly architecture. But after Akbar's death—he may have been poisoned by Muslim government officials who were suspicious of his religious tolerance—the empire began to decline. This decline continued under Aurangzeb (1618–1707), who became emperor in 1658. Mogul control in south India came under increased pressure with revolts by the Hindu Maratha princes. To worsen matters, Aurangzeb lacked Akbar's religious tolerance, imposed special taxes on Hindus, destroyed their temples, and forced them to convert to Islam. Soon after Aurangzeb's death, the empire began to break up, enabling the British to step in.

The new emperor, Bahadur Shah I (reigned from 1707 to 1712), was unable to prevent Mogul decline and his efforts to collect taxes and to impose greater control over the Rajput states of Amber and Jodhpur were unsuccessful. His policies toward the Hindu Marathas were also a half–hearted mixture of conciliation and suppression: they were never defeated and resistance to Mogul rule persisted in the south. The provinces became increasing independent with the decline of Mogul central authority in the period between 1707 and 1761. This resurgence of regional identity accentuated both political and economic decentralization as Mogul military powers ebbed. The provinces, particularly Bengal, Bihar, and Avadh in northern India, became virtual independent kingdoms recognizing the Mogul Emperor in name only.

These provinces laid the foundations for the princely states under the British Raj. These princes relied on the support from their relatives, from the lesser nobility, and from the peasants. Their rule was very personalized, with followers swearing allegiance to the ruler alone and not to the state. As such, with the death of a prince, allegiances shifted and loyalty divided, making cooperation impossible. The princes were thus never strong enough to dominate any sizeable territories and the Mogul Empire shrank, although it lasted until 1858 in the face of growing European, particularly British, encroachments.

Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, first visited India in 1498, and for the next century the Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on European trade with the subcontinent. The English East India Company set up its first factory at Surat in western India in 1612 and expanded its influence by fighting the Indian rulers and the French, Dutch, and Portuguese traders simultaneously. Bombay was taken from the Portuguese and became the seat of English rule in 1687. The defeat of the French and Mogul armies by Lord Clive in 1757 laid the foundation of the British Empire in India. The East India Company continued to suppress native uprisings and extend British rule until 1858, when India was formally transferred to the British Crown following the Indian Mutiny in 1857–1858. British rule was enabled by the fall of the Mogul Empire and the subsequent division of India.

By the sixteenth century in Eurasia, the balance between the nomadic cavalry and the agrarian peoples had shifted irrevocably to the latter. They had a continuing advantage in numbers, supplemented by an increasingly well–organized infantry and further supplemented by firepower, artillery, fortifications, and better means of transport and mobility. These characteristics were to be consolidated by the peoples of Western Europe and, augmented by maritime technology, produce some of the mightiest and far–reaching imperial structures thus far devised. As they ventured outside Europe they encountered other imperial structures already constructed far from the Eurasian heartland.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs dominated northern Mexico in the early sixteenth century, at the time of the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés (1485–1587). They originated from north Mexico as a small, nomadic, tribal people living on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they settled in the central basin of Mexico, where small city–states fought one another in shifting alliances. The Aztecs consolidated on small islands in Lake Texcoco around Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

During the fifteenth century the Aztecs created an empire that was larger than any in the Americas except that of the Incas in Peru. It had a highly specialized and stratified society with an imperial administration and a trading network, as well as a tribute system, a sophisticated agricultural economy, and a developed, primitive religion. The annual round of rites and ceremonies in the cities involved human sacrifice. It was a flourishing, savage imperial system.

Aztecs had professional military officers but no professional army. Every boy was trained to fight and a vital part of everyday life for the Aztecs was warfare. A boy became a man by capturing his first prisoner. The Aztecs' courage and strength helped them build their empire and establish themselves as the fiercest of all the tribes in the Valley of Mexico. War was partly a ritual: a site was chosen and armies met in a battle that was usually short and ended with the surrender of the weaker side and the taking of prisoners.

The objective was to disable an opponent by striking his leg so he could be taken prisoner. Prisoners were the real war trophies, since they were used as sacrifices in religious festivals. The Aztecs and their enemies used spears, slings, and bows and arrows to fight at close range. Blades were chipped from obsidian (rock of volcanic glass) and mounted on weapons. A freshly made obsidian blade was as sharp as the Spaniards' steel swords, but soon lost its edge and was easily broken. The Spaniards used steel swords, guns, armor, and cannons. The Spaniards' purpose was military victory and then profit.

Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1519, and the Aztecs greeted the Spaniards. The Spaniards set up camp and Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler, sent gifts of gold to Cortés. The Spaniards burned their own ships and set off for Tenochtitlan with four hundred Spaniards, sixteen horses, and several cannons. Cortés persuaded many of the subject nations who were enemies of the Aztecs to join him. The Spaniards soon reached Lake Texcoco and with their native allies were invited to stay in one of the palaces by Moctezuma II. Fighting broke out, Cortés took Moctezuma II hostage and tried to control Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards led the final attack on Tenochtitlan with four hundred men and about 150,000 rebellious native allies. The Aztec capital was finally destroyed in 1521 and Mexico City was built on top of the ruins.

The Spanish introduced horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs to the American continent. They also brought fruits, sugar, and other grains, and took potatoes, tomatoes, beans, maize, and whatever bullion they could find (and it was vast) back to Europe. They divided the continent into military districts, which later became independent states.

The Incas

The Incas were the last great empire in South America. The civilization started around 1200 and lasted more than three hundred years—until the Spaniards arrived around 1530. At its peak the Inca Empire stretched from Ecuador to Chile, or almost 3,000 miles.

The Incas built an extensive irrigation system and grew many different kinds of staple crops, including the potato. They used animal manure and bird droppings, known as guano, as fertilizer. Those that lived in the desert lowlands grew tomatoes, tropical fruit, and cotton; the Incas that lived in the mountains grew potatoes. People at high elevations herded llama and alpaca, which supplied food and wool. The Incas also grew peppers, peanuts, avocados, and beans. Orchids were grown for medicine and people chewed cocoa leaves. The Incas built vast stone terraces on the mountainsides.

The capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco, had a population of up to 300,000 people. They had a highly organized system of government, with the king as head and a High Council. The system had a structure of elected officials who governed and its territory was divided into administrative provinces. The people paid taxes, often through labor contributions.

The Incas had initially created this empire by conquering other tribes. The entire Inca Empire had a population of about ten million people. The Incas built a 10,000– to 20,000–mile road system, including pontoons and suspension bridges. But the Incas were also proficient craftsmen and administrators and organized their communications by mail from runner to runner who might cover 350 miles a day. In battle, they used spears and whips.

In 1532 Spaniards arrived and the Incas thought they were their gods, which diminished initial resistance. Many people quickly died from the diseases the Spanish brought from Europe. The Incas were then defeated in the field by the Spaniards' guns, against which they were no match. Their domain was then divided into areas of military administration under the Spanish Empire and provided considerable booty for the victorious Europeans.

The Zulu Empire

The Zulus are a tribe native to the KwaZuluNatal province of South Africa. Historically, the Zulus were a warrior nation and believed themselves to be descendants of the patriarch Zulu, the son of a chief in the Congo basin in central Africa. European apartheid–era textbooks taught that South Africa was virtually empty of human habitation when colonized by the Dutch in 1652. In truth, the Zulu people had begun to migrate towards their present location in Natal during the sixteenth century.

The crucial turning point in Zulu history occurred during the reign of Shaka (1787–1878), king of the Zulus from 1816 to 1828. Prior to his rule, the Zulus consisted of numerous clans or political entities that were culturally related but disorganized. Shaka is depicted as a mighty and fearsome warrior who united the clans into a single powerful tribe. He introduced a new system of military organization and revolutionized his army's weaponry and military tactics. He also introduced new battle formations and was a strict and brutal disciplinarian. Soldiers were required to remain celibate and violation of this was punishable by death. Shaka greatly increased the power of his tribe,

and conquered clans and tribes were incorporated into the Zulu nation. In eleven years he increased their number from 1,500 people to fifty thousand warriors alone.

From the time of Shaka, the Zulus fought many wars of defense to keep themselves from being dominated by the encroaching European powers and settlers. Before they succumbed to the British, Chief Bambatha led the final Zulu uprising in 1906. From then on the tribe that had once been master of much of the eastern coast and interior of South Africa, was subjected to an increasingly harsh series of racist laws in the state of South Africa that led to poverty and disempowerment. This was maintained until apartheid was abolished in South Africa in 1994.

European Modern Imperialism

Imperialism is now most popularly used to describe the expansion of Europe from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. This expansion was truly exceptional because it created worldwide imperial systems, which were often larger, more populous, and more diverse than preceding ones. But they were not exceptional in purpose or design.

The imperialism of Europe created the modern and contemporary world. It was based on: technological advantages which were progressively extended through a social system which encouraged scientific advances; the correspondingly superior military power of the European states; the more productive economies of the European peoples which their societies encouraged; the larger populations which, for a while, these processes generated in Europe; and the better organized political and administrative forms the states of Europe devised which enabled them to channel superior resources to expansion. At different times the Europeans excused and supported these activities by suitable ideologies including, at first, varieties of Christian doctrine and later by a Darwinian social and scientific outlook.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe broke into a myriad of political organizations loosely described as "feudalism." While this political anarchy resolved itself into better order, the secular authority of the Holy Roman Empire and the spiritual authority of the Pope, operating through the Universal Church, were at least theoretically acknowledged. But during the Dark and Medieval Ages, from the time of Charlemagne (742) to the first voyage to America in 1492, Christendom was confined to Europe by the Mongols, Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and the Atlantic Ocean. The power of various European states ebbed and waned, often creating small imperial systems: the Holy Roman Empire, the Norman lands, and the Plantegenet English empire. But limited feudal, dynastic states were the norm.


King Shaka Zulu

King Shaka Senzangakhona laid the basis of the Zulu Empire in the early nineteenth century by protracted warfare and conquest. By use of force and often fear, Shaka gained control over a number of other Zulu clans and expanded his territory systematically. His warriors raided Zulu and then other villages and often burnt them down; captured or killed women and children; put young men into the army; and killed rival chiefs.

Shaka, born to a Zulu chief in 1787, joined the Zulu army and became its highest commander. He gained supremacy over the Zulu clans, enforcing his power with brutality. Zulu territory was then expanded by force, and Shaka created the most powerful kingdom in southern Africa through constant battle and ferocity. Shaka was assassinated by his half–brother in 1828.

The image created of him by contemporary Europeans was of a brutal savage, and during the colonial period white historians justified their control over the Zulus by using that image to condemn the independent African states they had conquered. Other African tribes also described Shaka as a ruthless tyrant and oppressor.

But for modern Zulus, Shaka is a national legend. He was a brave and inventive warrior who dominated local political opponents by ferocity and ruthlessness. He defeated other tribal chiefs to build a unified Zulu kingdom, with advanced centers of administration and regimental barracks and discipline. He recruited young men into the national army directly under his control. While he was undoubtedly a ruthless leader who used terror, he did imposed a whole new state superstructure over his kingdom which grew rich on cattle captured during almost constant military activity.

Shaka is revered every year at his gravesite by Zulu nationalists. They have revived him as a symbol of pre–European Zulu greatness. His is the more violent rewriting of history in a post–colonial mode.

The Christian Crusades were mounted into the Levant against Islam in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but repelled by the Arabs and the Ottomans. The Europeans then embarked on a period of quite brilliant expansion to the west and south, which took them to imperial mastery of much of the world. This was not driven by a more rapacious culture, or by a more avaricious economic system. What marked out the modern Europeans was their greater capacity, deriving from their better developed and more advanced economic, military, and political systems. This higher level of development was achieved by the combination of commercial capitalism and the intra–European competitive state system.

These processes generated an internal revolution in Europe. Each state adopted the most advanced system the other states produced which led to a continuing process of technological progress, which an empire, like China, found difficult to generate. Then in 1492, Columbus broke Europe out of its geographic confines by connecting it to the wider world into which European power penetrated for the next five centuries.

The Advance of European Imperial Power

European imperial power advanced into the world in phases. During the sixteenth century the two Iberian states created the initial structure of the Atlantic economy. Under the Papal Treaty of 1494, Spain and Portugal divided the world between them approximately at longitude 60 degrees (an imaginary line which would cut through modern–day Newfoundland, the western Atlantic, and Brazil), with Spain taking that to the west, Portugal that to the east.

Spain Spain had recently evicted the Muslims and developed the finest infantry in Europe. After Cortés' conquests in Mexico in the early–sixteenth century, the Spanish used large and impressive galleons to transport booty from the New World back to the Old. When the Habsburg House of Austria joined that of Spain, it added artillery to its murderous armory. Its ferocious Catholicism, hardened by the fight with Islam and sharpened by the Inquisition, served as a fine imperial ideology to excuse the pursuit of riches and justify conquest. The diseases the Spaniards carried, often recently imported from Asia during the Plague, killed more Amerindians than the formidable steel weapons, cavalry, and religious zeal which they had never before encountered. Some estimates had their population falling from around fifty million down to two million.

The Spanish created an empire that stretched from contemporary California and Florida to Tierra del Fuego, the islands that make up the southern tip of South America. They then explored the Pacific Ocean, which became for three centuries a Spanish "lake" across which Spanish merchant fleets transported booty from the Philippines. During most of this time, Spain was governed by Hapsburgs as a part of one of the largest European dynastic domains.

Portugal Portugal was smaller, but also better placed and less distracted by European ambitions. The Papal deal had given it what became Brazil and the rest of the world to the east. Portuguese captains then undertook remarkable voyages which brought them to Africa and Asia on numerous and profitable voyages of discovery and enrichment. The Portuguese met Spanish power in Southeast Asia, at longitude 120 degrees, where Spain took the Philippines and Portugal Malacca and what became Timor. But Portugal was more limited in military power and was confined by size and then current technology to naval trading stations, and a chain of Portuguese ports circled the globe from Brazil to Japan.

For a time the crowns of Portugal and Spain were united by dynastic succession and the Habsburgs ruled the most extensive empire the world had known and on which the sun truly never set, embracing as it did territories in Europe, America, Africa, the Pacific, and Asia. But within two centuries it became exhausted by the efforts of defending it.

In Asia, European power was at first limited to trading stations (often fortified) established along the coast after 1511 and the early phase of the Age of Vasco da Gama. Portugal was restricted to trading stations in southern Africa, Goa, Malacca, Macao, Japan, the Spice Islands, and Timor. These fortifications often gave the Portuguese a capacity to intervene in local politics but not for the imposition of extensive imperial rule on a heavily populated continent. During the seventeenth century the Iberian states began to face rivals in their quest for world imperial dominion from the Protestant Netherlands and Britain and Catholic but nationalist France.

The Netherlands In 1648 the Netherlands emerged from the Thirty Years War independent of the Habsburgs and became, arguably, the first liberal capitalist state, and soon set about using their naval power to acquire colonies in New York, Cape Town, and the East Indies. They did this in competition with the British, against whom they fought and lost several wars, relinquishing New York and Cape Town in the process. Nonetheless, they held onto colonies, including the Netherlands East Indies until 1949, and during those three centuries exploited them remorselessly and effectively, transferring great wealth to the small and wealthy European state.

Britain and France The British began their imperial trajectory in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), a late medieval warlord of immense capacities. England was consolidated as a state and successfully defended against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It then began the conquest of North America, where it established a series of colonial settlements. These became the thirteen colonies, profitable to the British as trading partners monopolized by British merchant marine.

The French also joined in the imperial conquest of North America by claiming the Hudson Valley corridor to the Great Lakes, and then moving into the Mississippi Valley with a view to joining Canada to New Orleans in the Gulf. This was an area immensely rich in timber, pelts, and fertile land for colonial settlement. Several wars between the British and French necessarily ensued, but were inconclusive before 1756.

The Seven Years War—the first genuinely world war—was fought between the British and French empires in 1756–1763, and waged for profitable imperial possessions in North America, the Caribbean, India, and east Asia. This war ended in a British victory and the French were evicted from Canada—and from India. The thirteen British colonies now had little need for British protection and declared their independence in 1776, which led to war.

The resulting United States of America now became the first serious version of the modern settler colonial state, liberal in government but imperial towards other territory despite its anti–imperial ideology. It set about acquiring more territory owned by others in a series of purchases (Louisiana and Alaska), seizures (Texas), and colonizations that pushed the frontier to the Pacific coast. The combination of resource rich territory and industrious population made the U.S. an outstanding example of the benefits to be derived from imperial expansion and settlement.

The British had temporarily ended the ambitions of the French outside Europe, but they re–directed their attentions. After the revolution of 1789, the French created an empire in Europe under the direction of the military genius, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. He revolutionized the map of Europe through a series of military campaigns that saw him effectively undefeated in the field from 1798 to 1813. This made France the imperial ruler of the richest continent on earth, but unable to expand outside it after the defeat of the French fleet by Britain's Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. The French control of Europe was then ended by their defeat in Russia in 1812–1813, in Spain in 1814, at the Battle of the Nations in 1814, and finally and decisively, by the Duke of Wellington overwhelming Napoleon's forces at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleonic rule, however, greatly enriched France.

The British were now the masters of the world outside Europe. They undertook the first attempt to create a global commercial system in place of discrete imperial aggrandizements. With mastery of the world's oceans after 1805, a small but capable and mobile army, a rapidly industrializing economy soon producing nearly forty percent of world output, and with a financial system based in London, the British now attempted to open the world to free trade and commerce. Between 1815 and 1870 the British used their power not to enlarge their already extensive colonies, but to open the world to commerce. After 1870 a number of other states emerged as rival powers and undertook imperial expansion designed to take territories into their own exclusive zones in traditional imperialist fashion. These included a revived France under Napoleon III, a newly unified Germany led by Otto von Bismarck, the post–Civil War United States, and, in east Asia, the Russians and the Japanese.

Asia's experience During this process Asia was opened to European power. At first, this involved exposing reluctant states to commerce, a procedure started by the British in the 1840 Opium War with decaying imperial China, and extended by the U.S. in Japan in 1853. But as the European states became more powerful, the trading stations around the coast of Asia were not sufficient to provide access to the increasing quantities of raw materials and foodstuffs and larger markets that the Europeans believed Asia potentially presented. The Europeans undertook the conquest of Asia proper.

The Russians spread across the great Eurasian steppe and its large population and military technology, including gunpowder, took its toll. Under a series of aggressive rulers, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, they seized territory from the nomadic tribes and then the Chinese state from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and expanded as far as Alaska, which they later sold to the U.S. In the nineteenth century they annexed a number of mostly Muslim republics in Central Asia.

In the 1870s the French began the conquest of the Indochina states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The Japanese, newly modernized and understanding the benefits of colonial expansion, defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 and constructed an empire in east Asia that was to continue to expand until 1943. The United States seized the Philippines from Spain in the war of 1898. And by the 1870s even the British had returned to imperial expansion and, in quick succession, expanded their direct rule across the whole of India, Burma, the states of Malaya, and the north Borneo colonies. The Dutch also accelerated their conquest of the entire East Indies.

The Europeans then began carving up China. The Middle Kingdom was unable to resist the attacks of the imperial powers by the late nineteenth century. Russia seized territory to the north; and Japan to the east. The British, Germans, and French established spheres of influence with "Treaty Ports" and extra– territorial rights. And finally, when patriotic Chinese resisted, the U.S. organized a joint force to put down the Boxer Rebellion. In 1911, the dynastic state finally collapsed, to be replaced in theory by a republic, but in fact by a civil war which did not end until 1949.

Africa At the same time, the Europeans completed their conquest of Africa. Africa was first integrated into the Atlantic economy by the provision of slaves. Slavery had existed in Africa since pre–Roman times and had been maintained by the Arabs. Slave–based plantation economies were well known to the Mediterranean world and were introduced to the Canary Islands. Slavery was then brought to America. The American natives often did not serve this function well and African slaves were imported. During the three centuries of the slave trade, tens of millions of Africans were transported to the Americas and their use was integral to the establishment of imperial economies for the production of sugar, then cotton.

The Portuguese consolidated their hold on Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea–Bissau. The Spanish retained Spanish Sahara. The French established a Second Empire, adjacent to France, in North Africa as far south as the Equator. Late in the century, the British pursued a railway and corridor from the Cape to Cairo and acquired a string of possessions from the South African colonies to Egypt. The late–coming Germans took some colonial remains in South West Africa, Tanganyika, and German Somalia. The rush was so indecent that the Congress of Berlin was convened in 1884–1885 to provide order to the onslaught and draw some clear boundaries. Even then, Italy later joined the scramble and acquired Libya in 1909 and Ethiopia, indecently late, in 1935. By that time no independent states existed in Africa, although most powers were having trouble making a profit from African colonies except where precious metals were found. Even then, as in South Africa, the British found the European Boer settlers a problem to contend with in war.

Decline of Imperial Systems

This competitive expansion of the European– based empires, contributed to the tensions that led to war in 1914, but the real causes were in Europe. Nonetheless, the defeat of the Central Powers led to them losing their imperial systems. In Europe, this created modern national states in the place of the German and Austro–Hungarian dynastic creations.

But losing a war is not necessarily the only way to lose an empire. For a good example of the problems that widespread colonization can cause, one need look no further than Great Britain. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful nation on earth. Their empire extended to all parts of the world. But the difficult war fought against the Boers hurt British prestige. Decades later, victory in World War I had nearly bankrupted the country. It became harder and harder to justify spending money on strange lands thousands of miles away from home. Moreover, Indian troops had fought for Britain on the assumption that they would be granted independence, which did not happen. The Indian people grew agitated, and feelings of betrayal and nationalism surged. A generation later, Britain tapped all of her resources once again to win World War II. The people were weary of talk about the glory of empire, and wanted the government to concentrate on the needs of its citizens at home. "Conquering these new areas cost money, as did setting up the governments to run them," wrote William W. Lace in The British Empire: The End of Colonialism. By 1945, Britain no longer had the money or the will for imperialism. Britain's prize for winning both world wars would be the loss of its empire and the loss of its status as the most powerful nation on earth.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I led to the creation of a modern Turkish national state and a re–division of the Middle East. Persia (Iran) also became a nation–state. Under the League of Nations system of mandates, the British got Palestine, Trans–Jordan, Iraq, and Gulf states, and the Saudi Arabian regime came under British protection. These were added to the neighboring Egypt and the Sudan to control the route to India. The French got Syria and the Lebanon with its large Christian community dating from the Crusaders. These moves were in part designed to give the Europeans access to oil reserves rapidly emerging as the world's most valuable commodity.

Defeated in 1918, Germany was reorganized for military expansion under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939. It then pursued the same imperial aims once more under the Nazi regime from 1939 to 1945. This involved German imperial domination of Europe from France to the Urals to the benefit of the German state and people. This was briefly achieved by aggressive war in the early 1940s.

The Soviet Union

But the last great European empire was that of the revolutionary Soviet regime led by Vladimir Lenin, which replaced tsarist rule in Russia. The Soviet Union's imperial system was created in three layers. After 1917 Lenin took over most of the Russian imperial state, crushing secessionist nationalist movements after the Bolsheviks seized Moscow and St. Petersburg, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia but also in Central Asia. In a deal with Hitler in 1939 the Soviets then annexed territory in Eastern Europe, including the states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as much of Poland. After 1945 they directly annexed the rest of Poland and also established puppet, semi–colonial regimes in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Rumania. This was the inner colonial territory. Then in the 1970s, during the retreat of U.S. power, they were able to acquire client regimes in Indo China, Cuba, several African states, and parts of the Middle East.

But this empire was not profitable to the Soviet state. Indeed, by the 1980s it was a severe drain on its resources. The cost of this imperial system was greatly increased by the policies of the Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982, Leonard Brezhnev. Maintenance of the satellite states took up one–quarter of the Soviet economy by 1980. This cost included large subsidies to communist Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, cheap energy sales to the east European puppet regimes, and grants and aid to the many Third World regimes that had come under Soviet patronage. In addition, the Soviets maintained a defense budget to compete with the U.S.–but with an economy perhaps ten percent as large. In the late 1980s, this whole imperial edifice, created with great ideological zeal and at considerable material cost, was dismantled by the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.


The last phase in the expansion of the imperial power of the European states after 1870 was so spectacular that it sparked a major controversy about the reasons for it. A number of explanations were offered at that time, and subsequently by historians.

The most obvious was that they conquered other countries because they had the power to do so. This theory of "the pursuit of power" was advanced by Hans J. Morgenthau in his textbook on international relations, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. This pursuit of power had been common behavior by states since the Neolithic revolution. The disparity in power between the Europeans and others was for long so great that it made imperial conquest very cheap. The "lust for power" inherent in the state, particularly its military forces, provided a culture within which conquest could be justified by the security and strategic interests of the state. Even if conquest was distant, annexation could be justified in terms of denying resources to rival states. Democrat critics often pointed to the aristocratic nature of the ruling classes of nineteenth and early twentieth century European states and the believed predilection for war, chivalry and battle endemic to that class. This was, however, a difficult argument to later adduce for non–aristocratic states like the U.S. or Australia.

Other authors produced culture–based arguments. Some of these were centered on the culture of Christendom in Europe, which, it believed, had some responsibility to civilize primitive cultures and bring them within the bounds of Christian civilization. This rarely, however, looks more than a ex post facto justification for state policy undertaken for more practical and usually profitable reasons. It is unlikely that Cortés, for example, was more inspired by the conversion of souls than by the pursuit of booty. Other writers, less charitably again, believed that the arms manufactures drove states to expand their ambitions in order to fill profitable arms production contracts. This, again, proved more difficult to demonstrate than assert.


More commonly blamed, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was the European system of production itself, now known as capitalism. Among such critics were both liberals, like John Hobson in his book Imperialism: A Study and marxists, like Vladimir Lenin in his polemic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Hobson, an opponent of the British pursuit of the Boer War, wrote in 1900 against the European settler states in southern Africa. He argued that the capitalist countries of Europe were by the end of the nineteenth century dominated politically by the owners of capital. These capitalists could not find sufficient profitable outlets for their investments. As a result, they successfully urged the governments to pursue overseas and colonial expansion so that they could invest safely in these new colonies and make a profit. In the Boer War British capital was after the rich opportunities offered by gold and diamond mining in the Boer republics. To deal with this problem, Hobson argued, income should be redistributed to the poor in Britain, so that capitalists would be able to find profitable outlets and markets at home.

Lenin published his pamphlet in 1917 as part of his general program of seeking the revolutionary overthrow of the Russian Tsarist regime. He wanted to link the First World War to capitalism in order to garner support from the numerous Russian opponents of the war for his revolutionary cause. Taking much of his argument from Hobson, he said that under "monopoly capitalism" the states of Europe were driven by large financial cartels pushing each country to seek imperial conquest in order to gain profitable investment opportunities. In the process of competing for these colonies, they had gone to war with each other. The only way to stop that war was to overthrow capitalism.

These arguments were ill–founded. Most investments from the capitalist countries did not go to their colonies but to other independent and wealthy capitalist states. Imperialism and war had existed as part of the human political condition since the Neolithic revolution. The First World War had its origins almost entirely in European politics. And when Lenin did replace tsarism with a revolutionary state it proved to be among the most expansionary and war–like in the world.

Benefits of Imperialism

A common view is that one positive aspect of imperialism is that new ideas and superior technologies are introduced into the conquered lands. Some feel, however, that this is an arrogant, Eurocentric viewpoint, that any positive qualities of colonialism are far outweighed by the disease, slavery, suspicion, ill feelings, and oppression often brought to new lands. Yet more than a few historians do point to specific positive qualities of imperialism, all while acknowledging the negative. As William Prescott wrote of the Aztecs in his 1837 work Conquest of Mexico:

How can a nation where human sacrifices prevail, and especially combined with cannibalism, further the march of civilization? The influence of the Aztecs introduced their gloomy superstition into lands before unacquainted with it, or where, at least, it was not established in any great strength.

Prescott did not feel that this alone justified the Spanish conquest and acknowledges the atrocities that occurred during battle, but also stated that not every result was bad for humanity, and that Cortés and his soldiers were, in many ways, simply a product of their time. In addition, it should be remembered that the destruction of the Aztec Empire may not have been possible without the surrounding Native American tribes who allied themselves with the Spaniards.

The Mongol conquest of China is often linked with the opening of a massive trade route that spread ideas and discoveries to groups of people who had before not even known of each other's existence. This certainly was a positive aspect. The Mongol occupation also probably helped to strengthen Chinese ethnic pride. However, it is unlikely that the Chinese benefited more, in the long run, from Mongol control than from earlier native rule.

For most of human history, philosophers have accepted that imperial expansion and conquest are a necessary part of organized political societies and their interaction with one another. In classical Greece, the martial skills and dispositions were cultivated alongside those of the intellect to produce a rounded citizen. Pericles' speech over the Athenian dead in Thucydides makes a virtue of dying for democratic Athens. Alexander the Great was raised in the imperial tradition and ranks high among Greek heroes for pursuing conquest by force throughout his short life. The Romans made heroes of their conquerors and Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul may be read as propaganda advertising his qualifications for even higher office. This tradition continued into Christian Europe. Indeed, the greatest of the Renaissance political philosophers, Machiavelli, devotes considerable space to advising The Prince on how to deal with a conquered province.

Imperial behavior applied equally to states of differing ideological hues: the Islamic Ottoman Turks; the Christian Charles V and Philip II, dynastic rulers of the extensive Hapsburg dominions; the Bourbon absolutist monarchy in France; commercial and liberal Britain; Revolutionary France under the Directorate and Napoleon, both in pursuit of the conquest of Europe; Napoleon III and the new French empire in Africa; Kaiser Wilhelm and the Nazis in pursuit of German military imperialism into eastern Europe; Teddy Roosevelt and the "New Imperialism" of republican America; and the egalitarian settlers of Australia and New Zealand in their pursuit of the domination of the southwest Pacific.

In this pursuit of imperial expansion, societies had many and diverse proponents. Charles Darwin's account of The Evolution of the Species, with its implied doctrine of the survival of the fittest species, was readily turned into "Social Darwinism" in justification for the conquest of the socially backward by the technologically advanced. Marx argued that European colonialism of stagnant Asia would prod what he called the "Asiatic Mode of Production" out of its lethargy and into the world of capitalist progress.


Again, this is not to say that the imperialist impulse has lacked critics. Throughout history, the commercial and agricultural classes may have preferred what the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, extolled as Perpetual Peace. Kant argued that a society of rational republican states would be peaceable. But other impulses beat in the human heart and the expansionist ambitions of a Genghis Khan or Catherine the Great would offer periodic reminder of the aphorism: "If you seek peace, prepare for war." Nonetheless, the final period of European expansion coincided with the evolution of liberal and representative governments whose spokesmen had more interest in commercial and cultural exchange than imperial conquest. From them, evolved the contemporary critics of imperialism who dominate Western considerations of the phenomenon in the early twenty–first century.

Liberals have decried imperial expansion since Richard Cobden and his biographer, John Hobson, in International Man criticized European colonialism in the nineteenth century. In this, they merely followed American liberal and anti–imperial sentiment that originated in the American Revolutionary War. Ignoring its own record of colonial expansion, the U.S. then embarked on Great Power status in 1917 with a full–blown, anti–imperial ideology. During the second part of the twentieth century American power was then deployed successfully to dismantle the European colonial structures. In this pursuit, it was motivated partly by liberal ideology and partly by a desire to access the closed markets and other commercial opportunities of the colonial empires, as David Mosler and Bob Catley described in their book, Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World. The Marxist school has, since Lenin's 1917 polemic, persistently criticized what it claims to be the uniquely capitalist form of imperialism. Among its recent proponents has been Harry Magdoff in The Age of Imperialism. Its force has been, understandably, diminished by the long period of expansion undertaken by the Soviet state, only to be followed by its collapse. The unworkability of Soviet economics as an alternative to market forms has contributed to the demise of the Marxist school.

For a period in the 1970s, the Marxist school was supplanted by "Dependency Theory," of whom Andre Gunder Frank, who wrote On Capitalist Underdevelopment in 1975, was the best–known author. This theory held that during the era of colonialism the Europeans had created dependent economies in the Third World which, because of their structural dependence on the world market, would always remain poor and underdeveloped. This argument was taken up by many Third World intellectuals and regimes but was progressively abandoned by the 1990s. This was because its adherents had created such murderous regimes whenever they had come to power, notably in Pol Pot's Khmer Republic; because many Third World states adopting liberal and market economics did indeed develop; and because its postulates were increasingly seen as excuses by incompetent Third World regimes for their own failures.

The Current Status of Imperialism

Contemporary critics of imperialism tend to be more cultural in form. They often derive their argument from people like Franz Fanon, a black Francophone who depicted Third World citizens as The Wretched of the Earth, subjugated by rapacious Europeans, whose very psychology could not survive healthily in its suborned condition without a violent resistance. Mahatma Ghandi pursued a pacifist form of this argument in his support for traditional Indian cultural modes. The Arab American Edward Said, in Orientalism, developed a similar perspective deriving from the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. This position, often termed "post–colonial theory," argues that the non–European world is persistently misrepresented and demonized by Western politicians and intellectuals, thereby justifying the political domination over it, which Europeans pursue. This argument ignores the waves of imperial expansion and contraction—many of them by non–Europeans—that have gone into the making of the modern world. It is, nonetheless, widely felt in parts of the Third World.

Yet the European empires did retreat. The European retreat from the Americas started with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was then extended during the Napoleonic Wars when most Spanish colonies in the Americas declared their independence at the behest of Simon Bolivar and with the encouragement of the British and protection of the British fleet. The emancipation of the Americas then proceeded through the nineteenth century with slave revolts in Haiti, secession in Brazil, and agreed self–government in Canada.

After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the Europeans. The British and French assumed League of Nations mandates in the region, but those states, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel and Palestine, quickly acquired their independence. As U.S. power replaced that of the European colonialists by the 1970s, so the structure of power in the region assumed classical geopolitical new dimensions, together with some new attempts at imperial expansion, including the abortive Iraqi annexation of Kuwait in 1991.

The emancipation of Asia began with the dismantling of the German Empire after defeat in 1918. Australia, New Zealand and Japan got mandated territories in the process. Then in 1945 the Japanese Empire was also emancipated. In 1946, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines. Two years later the British began their evacuation of Asia with the independence of the Indian Raj into four major successor states. In 1957 and 1963 the British left their southeast Asian possessions, most of them forming the Federation of Malaysia, and finally, in 1997, Hong Kong. China asserted its sovereignty under a communist regime in 1949, the same year in which the Dutch were evicted from Indonesia by a combination of nationalist war and U.S. diplomatic pressure. In 1956 the French left Indo China, after waging an unsuccessful war to maintain their colonial possessions. European imperialism in Asia was largely finished.

The Europeans' exit from Africa was similarly rapid. Italy lost its colonies after its defeat in 1943. The French tried to maintain their empire but desisted after their defeat in the Algerian Civil War in 1958. The British, as in Asia, were keener de–colonizers and started the process in Ghana in 1957. It was then extended—albeit not without difficulty—throughout their African possessions in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, the short–lived Central African Federation, Uganda, and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. In 1960, Belgium left the Congo. The Portuguese hung on their ancient colonies in Angola, Guinea–Bissau, and Mozambique until a 1974 anti–colonial military coup in Lisbon. In South Africa and South West Africa/Namibia the apartheid regimes ended in 1994. Africa had gone back to the Africans.

The Pacific Ocean territories were, by and large, the last to be emancipated. New Zealand left Samoa in 1962 and the British vacated Fiji in 1970. The Australians granted independence to Papua/New Guinea in 1975 and the British quickly thereafter vacated Melanesia. But the French still retain New Caledonia and Tahiti and the U.S. American Samoa. But these remained among the few exceptions to the generalization that the Europeans had, with the exception of the settler states, vacated their imperial conquests in the wider world.

Why did imperialist Europe retreat? Most of this retreat occurred at a time when the dominant powers of the international system, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, were opposed to the kind of classic imperialism which the Europeans practiced. These superpowers supported anti–colonial movements against European power and put considerable pressure on the imperial powers to retreat.

The colonized people also became more difficult to rule as the ideas and techniques, particularly weaponry, spread more widely among them. Local and traditional rulers of colonial territories believed they could as well govern their people as Europeans. As these processes occurred, so the cost of governing colonies rose.

At the same time the anti–colonial ideas so deeply rooted in the socialists and liberal political movement in Europe spread among the increasingly enfranchised lower classes, so the willingness to bear the rising financial and casualty costs of imposing imperial rule fell. In Britain, for example, the first seriously anti– imperialist government was the Labour government of 1945 to 1951. The French abandoned Indo China when the electorate rejected the cost after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

By 1960 it had become clear to most European regimes that it was actually less profitable, if not unprofitable, to be imperialist. This realization dawned on the Soviets in the 1980s. Some imperial states then preserved the policy for other reasons: the political pressure of settlers (Britain); archaic calculations by military or fascist regimes (Portugal); or a geo–strategic calculation, for example, to have somewhere to test nuclear weapons (France).

At the beginning of the twenty–first century it is most commonly believed that the appropriate and most desirable form of political organization is the nation state. This idea was first forcefully pursued by liberals like the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) in his Fourteen Points of 1917. It has been taken up by the Charter of the United Nations that enshrines this doctrine.

Why Has There Been No Total World Empire?

Until the modern era, the level of technology would not support a global empire. The Habsburgs possessed a globe–encompassing domain, but probably ruled no more subjects than contemporary China and found it impossible to sustain. The British were supreme for perhaps thirty years, but even then had trouble in the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856. Today, the United States is the only remaining superpower, but is still vulnerable, as evidenced by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

No power has been able to imperialize the modern state system, although a succession have tried, as Paul Kennedy described in 1987 in Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: the Habsburgs, Bourbon France, Pitt's England, Napoleonic France, nineteenth–century Britain, Germany under the Kaiser and the Nazis, the Soviets, and now, arguably, the United States. This is because of the operation of countervailing tendencies. The operation of the Balance of Power leads other countries to unite against the aspiring dominator. Powers that are too ambitious, find themselves exposed to "Imperial Overstretch." The tendency for "combined and uneven development," leads other states to match eventually the innovations of the most powerful. And the technology for making global dominance a serious possibility is not yet available.


Imperialism usually starts with military conquest; it then uses this opportunity to install an administration or government, which organizes a transfer of resources from the colony to the metropolitan state. At the simplest level, this may be achieved by looting, as with Genghis Khan, or with bullion transfer, as with the Habsburgs, or with tribute to the Chinese empire. The more sophisticated means are systemic, like Rome or Britain, and involve colonies and colonial administrations who are made to trade profitably only within the empire. This may be expanded by investments in appropriate commodities like mines, plantations, or factories. Settlements may be used to get suitable labor to extract wealth, as in the Thirteen Colonies, in Australia or New Zealand, or in South Africa. If empire is not profitable, by the exchange of goods or by resource transfer, it will be sooner or later abandoned.

But the search for a single motive for imperialism may be fruitless. It stems from well springs deep in the human personality, and from impulses deeply buried in political societies.


  • Was Gibbon's description of the Roman Empire reasonable?
  • Why did the Chinese state outlast the Roman Empire, despite Rome's superior military advantage over its conquered territories?
  • Was Islamic imperialism during the caliphates purely motivated by religious ideology?



Blacker, Irwin R., ed. Prescott's Histories: The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire. New York: Viking Press, 1963.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

De Hartog, Leo. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. Leo De Hartog, 1999.

Kennedy, Paul. Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,. New York: Random House, 1987.

Lace, William W. The British Empire: The End of Colonialism. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000.

Mosler, David, and Bob Catley. Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World, Praeger, 2000.

Further Readings

Elvin, Mark. Pattern of the Chinese Past, Stanford University Press, 1973. An interpretation of Chinese history which emphasizes the high–level of Chinese achievement by the sixteenth century.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Knopf, 1993. A classic history of the expansion and collapse of the Roman Empire, which attributes its failure to the adoption of the Christian religion.

Kennedy, Paul. Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987. A description of the manner in which different states have tried to dominate the European international system since 1500, and an explanation for the failure of each from the Austrian Hapsburgs to the Soviet communists.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince, Knopf, 1992. This book is an attempt by a former Italian government official to provide advice to any aspiring imperial ruler, or Prince, about how to gain and then keep political power.

Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, McGraw–Hill, 1985. This is the classic modern statement of how nations become involved in the struggle with one another for power, influence, and empire—no matter what ideology they espouse.


Capitalism, Marxism


views updated Jun 08 2018


Marxist theories of imperialism

Other explanations of European expansion

The wider meanings of imperialism


The word “imperialism” is widely used as an emotive—and more rarely as a theoretical—term to denote specific forms of aggressive behavior on the part of certain states against others; the concept refers primarily to attempts to establish or retain formal sovereignty over subordinate political societies, but it is also often equated with the exercise of any form of political control or influence by one political community over another.

The word impérialiste was originally coined in France in the 1830s to denote a partisan of the one-time Napoleonic empire (Koebner & Schmidt 1964). “Imperialism” soon developed into a term of abuse employed before 1848 to castigate the Caesar-istic pretensions of Louis Napoleon. It was later used in a similar way both by French opponents of Napoleon III and by British adversaries of French rule and expansionism. In the 1870s British antagonists of Disraeli began to use the word as a domestic invective. But other British writers and politicians sought to rehabilitate the term. They applied it first to the policy of establishing a “Greater Britain” (Dilke 1869), through “the expansion of England” (Seeley 1883) into an “imperial federation” of Britain, its overseas settlements, and India. The acquisition of a large colonial empire in Asia and Africa led to the view that it was the “white man’s burden” (Kipling) to assume a “dual mandate” (Lugard 1922) for offering civilization to “backward” peoples and for opening their territories for the benefit of the world. Thus the term became increasingly identified with British colonialism.

The need for colonies was often argued in economic terms, both by British advocates of colonial expansion, who saw in an enlarged empire a means of preserving markets in an increasingly protectionist world, and by writers on the European continent who ascribed Britain’s wealth to her possession of colonies and hence demanded colonies to increase their nations’ wealth. While some identified “imperialism” with British world politics, others used the term to include the widespread desire for expansion on the part of European states generally.

Developments in China first, and later the Boer War, which was popularly regarded on the European continent as “la guerre de la Bourse contre les Boers,” initiated a powerful anti-imperialist current, eloquently articulated in J. A. Hobson’s study Imperialism (1902). Hobson (an economic heretic of radical-liberal persuasion) sought to explain European expansionism as based on the undercon-sumptionist tendencies of modern capitalism and the particular manipulations of groups of profiteering capitalists. Such views were systematized into a more elaborate theory by a number of Marxist writers in Germany and Austria (Bauer 1907; Hil-ferding 1910; Luxemburg 1913; Sternberg 1926; Grossmann 1929) and in Russia (chiefly Lenin 1917 and Bukharin 1918), by English radical writers (e.g., Brailsford 1914; Woolf 1920; Dobb 1937; and, in a much revised form, Strachey 1959), by the American economists Sweezy and Baran (see Sweezy 1942; Sweezy & Baran 1966), and by numerous historians who have increasingly influenced textbooks the world over.

In the interwar period such views achieved a massive political influence, mainly through Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (see Lenin 1917), but also through the propaganda efforts of such ill-matched groups as pacifists and isolationists, who agreed in ascribing wars to the insidious influence of armaments manufacturers, and National Socialists, who lashed out at Anglo-Saxon-cum-Jewish plutocracy.

Since World War ii, the frequent identification of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism has become rarer in the Western world; the aggressive policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan have made many observers aware of the unwarranted optimism in the theory that imperialist aggression was simply the product of a passing social system, like capitalism, or of particularly evil men, like capitalists. While after 1945 western Europe witnessed the demise of practically the whole of its colonial system, communism did not seem to lessen the expansionist policies of Russia and China.

“Imperialism” has now become part of a propaganda battle. In communist parlance the word remains restricted to the policies of the West, in particular the United States, whose Wall Street imperialism is thought to supplant that of the older European colonial powers. Western authors have, for their part, sought to identify communist policies with “the new imperialism” (Seton-Watson 1961; Kolarz 1964). Writers in the emerging countries have practically made the word interchangeable with “neocolonialism,” defined by Nkrumah (1965, p. ix) as a situation in which “the state …is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty” but where “its economic system and thus its political system is directed from outside.” Others have extended the term to refer to the economic, political, and military policies of all industrialized states, including the Soviet Union, or of the white race as such, or even of any unsympathetic foreign state. The word has thus become one of the most powerful slogans of our time, used indiscriminately against any state, or even any group, regarded as inimical to a speaker’s interest.

From this development, some have concluded with Lenin that the phenomenon of imperialism represents the most important problem of our times. Others have regarded it as a “pseudo-concept which sets out to make everything clear and ends by making everything muddled ... a word for the illiterates of social science” (Hancock 1950, p. 17). Whereas many historians reserve the term by preference for the period of European expansion after 1870, others regard this modern imperialism only as one example of an age-old phenomenon, defined by Schumpeter as “the objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion” ([1919-1927] 1951, p. 7) and specified by Langer as “simply the rule or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one state, nation or people over other similar groups, or …the disposition, urge or striving to establish such rule” (1935, p. 67).

Marxist theories of imperialism

The Marxist theories of imperialism still represent the most elaborate and influential attempt to explain the alleged propensity of capitalist states to engage in imperialist expansion.

Marxist authors (building on the non-Marxist Hobson) have agreed in finding the causes of European and American expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth in changes which took place within a maturing capitalist system, but they have differed about particular causes. Some theorists have regarded imperialism as a necessary condition for capitalist growth, whether because of the impossibility of continued accumulation of capital unless an effective demand is found among noncapitalist groups and societies (Luxemburg 1913), or because of the desire to acquire investment opportunities (Hobson 1902), or because of the need to offset the periodic depressions which were a characteristic of capitalist economies. Others explained imperialism mainly as a particularly profitable (though not inevitable) policy of powerful capitalist groups, like the attempt of “finance capitalists” to overcome the alleged secular tendency of profits to fall, or to find profitable uses for idle capital resulting from the increasing tendency toward monopolies, or to achieve the largest possible protected market which trusts and cartels could exploit and use as a basis for their further struggle for the world market (Bauer 1907, Hilferding 1910). While some authors have concentrated mainly on negative domestic factors which pushed capitalist economies into imperialist policies, others have given greater weight to positive colonial assets that pulled capitalists into foreign lands: cheap labor, raw materials, enforceability of favorable terms of trade, job opportunities, and new lands suitable for exploitation or settlement.

The various theories were formed mainly to account, post factum, for the scramble for Africa. But they served a more revolutionary purpose, since at least Luxemburg and Lenin used imperialism to explain the inevitability of world wars, once the world was fully brought under the control of rival capitalist states. Using his theory, Lenin explained the role of part of the working class (the “labor-aristocracy,” or social-democrat “lackeys of imperialism”) who supported their governments in 1914. Against them he called on true socialists to convert the war into a revolution at home. He also fashioned the explosive formula that the nationalist bourgeoisie in the colonial countries and the communists in the more advanced countries should combine their forces for a joint onslaught on the citadels of capitalism. Theories of imperialism still serve Marxists to explain the survival of capitalist economies, and the persistence of great inequalities in economic development levels between the onetime colonial powers and their former subject colonies. They also claim to provide a definite criterion by which to distinguish progressive from reactionary, historical from antihistorical, wars. But disputes have arisen among communist theoreticians over the question whether imperialism will inevitably lead to the holocaust of a new world war (as Chinese doctrine states) or whether the suicidal nature of modern armaments, coupled with the increased strength of the peace-loving forces in the world of the mid-1960s, may enable socialist and capitalist states to coexist more or less peacefully (as is argued with some hesitation in the Soviet Union).

Criticism of the Marxist theories

There has been a barrage of criticism of the Marxist theories which has taken three forms (in order of decreasing generality): (a) a rejection of the premise that wars are fought primarily for economic reasons; (b) a denial that capitalism is especially likely to foster imperialist tendencies; and (c) a critique of the attempt to explain late nineteenth-century colonialism as the result of capitalist forces exclusively.

Economic causation of war. Numerous authors (e.g., Robbins 1939; Wright 1942; Morgenthau 1948) have questioned the view that modern war has been waged primarily for economic motives. Norman Angell documented the unprofitability of war before World War I in The Great Illusion (1910). L. F. Richardson (1960) found that only 29 per cent of the wars from 1820 to 1929 can be directly attributed to economic factors. No serious historian would today subscribe to the prejudice, widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, that World War I was the direct result of the nefarious activities of armaments manufacturers, and few would hold that the entry of the Soviet Union into World War ii in 1941 suddenly transformed a war of capitalist economic imperialism into one of patriotic idealism.

Capitalism and imperialist tendencies. Critics of the Leninist theory have pointed to the frequency of war and imperial conquest long before capitalism, and to the expansionist record of postcapitalist Russia, to deny any special relationship between capitalism and imperialist policies. On the contrary, many theorists have held with Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and Richard Cobden that capitalism per se is likely to foster international understanding and peaceful tendencies. Even the Marxist Karl Kautsky envisaged (1915) the possible disappearance of intercapitalist wars through the establishment of an ultraimperialism in which international finance capital would exploit the world. Criticizing Marxist theories, Schumpeter (1919-1927) held, in line with Auguste Comte and Thorstein Veblen (cf. Aron 1958), that capitalism was inherently a democratizing, individualizing, and rationalizing force which channeled potentially aggressive energies in entrepreneurial, and hence relatively peaceful, directions. He regarded imperialism as mainly the result of atavistic drives of a precapitalist era and believed popular imperialism in modern states to be a logical impossibility. He later retracted this view, subscribing to Karl Renner’s doctrine of social imperialism (Renner 1917; see also Schumpeter 1939, vol. 2, p. 696), but continued to regard the forces behind imperialism as fundamentally irrational (Winslow 1948, p. 235). Hannah Arendt (1951) has attributed imperialism to an alliance between mob and capital, which ultimately destroyed capitalism.

Capitalism and colonialism. The virtual identification of imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism has also come in for considerable criticism from historians.

First, economic historians have questioned the assumption that the new colonies acquired by European powers in the latter part of the nineteenth century played an important role in capitalist development. By far the greater part of European investments after the 1870s flowed not to the colonies but to independent states in Europe (which had absorbed more than half the French and German foreign investments by 1914), to North and South America (which accounted for more than half the British foreign investments by 1914), and to South Africa and Australasia (Staley 1935; see Hobson 1914; Feis 1930; Cairncross 1953; Imlah 1958; Segal & Simon 1961). Trade with the colonial dependencies was generally only a small fraction of all British and French foreign trade, and an infinitesimal share for Italy, Germany, and Japan. Noncolonial countries had generally easy access to markets of colonies of other states, and these colonies in turn traded more with foreign lands than with their imperial masters (Clark 1936). Raw materials were important in the case of some colonial acquisitions, but their share in the raw material market as a whole was relatively slight. Advanced states did not lack access to raw materials in peacetime, and in wartime strategic and military, rather than economic, factors were decisive. Similarly, the terms of trade were not particularly favorable to Europe during the high tide of imperialism; indeed, they were less favorable than they are in the present period of large-scale “dis-imperialism” (Strachey 1959). There was almost no emigration to the new colonies, while most emigrants even from colonial nations went to other lands.

Second, the alleged identity of imperialism with colonialism and capitalism is also proved false by the circumstance that many nonimperialist states (like Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries) found little difficulty in attaining a high level of growth, foreign trade, and foreign investments, while capital-importing states with underdeveloped economies, notably Italy and tsarist Russia, followed starkly expansionist policies.

Third, historians have disproved the universality of the correlation between monopoly capitalism and imperialism (Feis 1930; Langer 1935; Hancock 1950). This viewpoint originated mainly in Germany, where there was indeed a relatively close connection between banks, heavy industry, and militarist and colonialist circles, though even in Germany colonial conquest predated somewhat the strong cartelization drive. In England and France, on the other hand, monopolies were hardly present at the time of strong imperialist expansion, and relations existing between the ordinary banking and industrial world and the investment brokers dealing in foreign loans were far from close. In the United States the situation was again different. The growth of trusts and cartels long preceded any strong overt inclination toward imperial conquests. In some countries the money market was relatively open to all, and in others (e.g., France and Germany) political interests manipulated foreign investments, rather than the reverse. Studies of the types of foreign loans issued in the heyday of colonial expansion reveal that much the greater part were in fixed-interest government securities; that the profitability of foreign investments was only marginally higher, if not lower, than that of domestic investments; and that in the end many European investors lost their money through defaults (see Feis 1930; Cairncross 1953; Blaug 1961).

Finally, the specific attribution of colonial policies to small groups of profiteering capitalists has also been challenged. Special interests have often pressed for colonial conquest and have frequently profited from them. But actual study of the entire record (Staley 1935) reveals that traders and investors have often been used as instruments by rulers and governments set on imperialist expansion for other reasons; private interests usually proved ineffective when such other concerns were absent.

The idea of a monolithic capitalism fully bent on imperialist conquest is, therefore, a myth. Many capitalist interests have opposed imperialist policies, while others have cheered them on. But in that case the real problem is not to identify the role of particular capitalist interests in certain imperialist exploits, but to indicate other factors which explain why, in particular instances, capitalist forces pressing for imperialism could be stronger than those that did not or those that actively resisted particular imperialist policies.

Other explanations of European expansion

If neither monopoly capital, nor domestic underconsumption, nor the need of markets for goods, or capital, or sources of raw materials was the special factor accounting for changes in European expansionist policies, what were the relevant factors?

Some Marxist writers have attempted to save economic determinism by insisting that annexations of areas of little economic importance were really “strategic,” “protective,” or “anticipatory” (Sweezy 1942). But this goes far to destroy the causal link between economics and politics on which the Marxist theory really rests.

A review of modern historical writing on European expansionism (see Langer 1935; Hallgarten 1951; Brunschwig 1960; Fieldhouse 1966) shows three predominant trends: (a) greater stress on noneconomic, and especially on purely political, determinants; (b) more attention to the considerable differences in the causes of particular imperialist incidents; and (c) increasing emphasis on the need to regard events after 1870 in a much longer time perspective than that usually called the period of “modern imperialism.”

Newer historians have thus found the mainspring of the movement of European expansion less in the expanding industrial economy and more in the political area of world strategies and ideologies of competing expansive nations. They have strongly emphasized (a) the unification of Germany and Italy, which fanned a new assertive nationalism in these countries; (b) the effects of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which tempted France into colonial adventures in order to regain a sense of glory and grandeur, to give employment and experience to the country’s military cadres, and to expand its potential manpower reservoir for possible revanche; (c) the continued expansion of Russia toward Constantinople, Persia, India, and the Far East, which increasingly threatened long-established British imperial interests; (d) the fact that Britain could not remain aloof from formal annexations when others threatened to move in, thus threatening the foundations of splendid isolation and of traditional balancing policies; or, more generally, (e) the search for compensation and for diplomatic advantage outside Europe, since the powers were deadlocked on the Continent itself. But the spread of European rivalries changed the pattern of international politics. As extra-European powers such as Japan, the United States, and China became increasingly involved, European dominance gave way to world politics in the true sense of the term.

Others have explained European imperialism less in terms of intra-European conflict than as a culmination of a great number of local conflicts. Detailed historical research of particular imperialist adventures has revealed the operation of a great variety of forces in each instance. Sheer power play, diplomatic maneuvering, strategic and geopolitical concerns, humanitarian interests and racial ideologies, economic drives and cultural expansionism have often intermingled without a priori dominance of any single factor. Frequently, particular conflicts resulted merely from the exploits of “private imperialists,” whether traders, explorers, concession hunters, or missionaries. Outside powers got entangled in indigenous warfare and disputes, while the inevitable instability of unsettled borders and the feared action by rival groups and governments often led to improvised interventions. Hence, new imperialist actions often resulted from past imperial commitments (India being a prime example). In this view, local rivalries slowly developed into imperialist policies on a world scale, to be interpreted only afterward and anachronistically as deliberate and planned expansion on the part of particular “imperial powers.”

At the same time, other writers have continued searching for more determinist explanations than either intra-European rivalry or localized imperial exploits provide. They have focused on longer-term technological, political, and social developments. Some have thus singled out the effects of the great changes in world communications which started when improved weaponry and navigation technology basically altered the relations of power between Europe and the rest of the world. To explain the upsurge of imperial expansion in the nineteenth century, they have stressed the impact of the change from wooden ships to steamers, which revolutionized the entire scale of international trade, affected the traditional dominance of the British navy, and led to a demand for coaling stations and for safeguards and control over international arteries like the Bosporus, the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal. This view logically extends to the later strategic concern with oil supplies. Railways posed similar strategic issues and facilitated the penetration of hitherto practically untouched inland areas. The advent of the telegraph immeasurably speeded the flow of information and held out the tempting prospect of direct rule over outlying lands, but again demanded safeguards for cables and cable stations. Of even greater influence was the simultaneous growth of a world press, which, coupled with the growing literacy rate in Europe and the United States, created mass publics that were often violently jingoistic.

Certain authors (e.g., Gallagher & Robinson 1953; Robinson & Gallagher 1961; 1962) have underscored this trend by emphasizing in particular the sociological effect of European expansionist policies on political regimes outside Europe. Rejecting the conventional view that there was a sharp break between the older mercantilist imperialism of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries and the new high tide of imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century, they have spoken of the intervening period as one of “the imperialism of free trade.” In this period European power and commerce were extended mainly through diplomatic and economic leverage, not by direct colonial rule. But while this was to a large extent feasible and successful in the Americas, in the Ottoman Empire, in north Africa, and in China—and could even be accompanied by a withdrawal of imperial controls in Canada, Australasia, and South Africa—it broke down increasingly in Afro-Asia after 1870 through the corrosive political and commercial effects that European policies had upon key African and Asian governments. The political and financial collapse of these governments brought European interests into play and led to a process of direct competitive annexations. European imperialism, in this view, is therefore a long-standing process in which, in Afro—Asia at least, extending imperialist activity was the result of the preceding activities of informal penetration and the protonational reactions that they eventually provoked.

Thus, on the one hand European expansion after 1870 is regarded as part of an almost self-evident process through which European power, enterprise, and culture spread over land and sea by formal as well as informal methods. On the other hand, exact study of this process leads to increasingly complex interpretations of the forces behind actual events and incidents.

The wider meanings of imperialism

The view of imperialism as a general and age-old phenomenon which predates and postdates the period of European overseas expansion (whether dated from the fifteenth or from the nineteenth century) poses new theoretical complications.

On the one hand, there is a tendency to regard as imperialism any form of more or less sustained aggressive action of one political system toward another. Thus defined, the term gets easily lost in vague generalities. Theoretical interpretation loses contact with concrete social and historical situations and is inevitably reduced to overgeneral explanations, attributing the phenomenon to postulated universal behavior traits of man (i.e., to psychological mechanisms) or of men (i.e., to group interaction). Imperialism has thus been explained by such presumably universal human emotions as fear, the will to power, pride, prestige, pugnacity, predacity, etc.

On the other hand, the attempt to narrow the definition of imperialism so as to make it suitable for more specific analyses has led other theorists into a tautological trap. They have found only those factors significant in the explanation of imperialism which their own definition has already singled out as determining or important. Thus some authors have spoken of imperialism only in the case of expansion by certain countries, or by states with a specific social system, or by particular groups within states. Some have restricted the word to specific types of aggressive policies, reserving the term for cases of overseas expansion but not for extension of power over contiguous land areas, or regarding as imperialism only the annexation of tropical or agrarian countries or territories with particular raw materials. Others have restricted the word to certain expansionist goals, e.g., economic exploitation, racial domination, cultural messi-anism. Still others have thought of imperialism only when certain conditions are fulfilled as to methods and duration of control, demanding as a criterion direct occupation but not indirect mechanisms like bribery, economic intervention, or military threats. Finally, certain authors have limited imperialism to attempts by states to reverse an existing status quo; imperialist policies are those which aim at acquiring new power (dynamic imperialism to others), but not those which seek to maintain an existing empire (which others call static imperialism). Such restrictive definitions often prejudge explanations of actual power relations and may be motivated by the political desire to defend or attack the policies of particular states.

These complications, which are the immediate result of the complexity of the numerous phenomena that have been subsumed under the term “imperialism,” make it doubtful whether a satisfactory theory of imperialism can ever be evolved. Many theorists of international relations have therefore dropped the term, as useless for theoretical analysis. Other authors have preferred to speak of imperialisms (in the plural) following Schumpeter (1919-1927). This suggests the phenomenon of “imperialism” must at least be broken down into a number of subtypes, which could be classified according to (a) goals pursued, (b) methods used, and (c) activating forces.

Imperialist goals

Expansionist political systems have historically pursued one or more of the following goals.

Economic gain. Throughout history forceful appropriation of material benefits has been a powerful factor in imperialist policies. Gains have consisted both of booty (e.g., precious objects, crops) acquired in single raids and of labor and products of populations subjected to enduring servitude and often forced to suffer a drastic overhaul of property relations and production systems.

Political power. Conquest of foreign lands was often motivated by the desire to augment political power. This could be in a direct sense, for instance, when foreign manpower was used to reinforce the armed strength of the imperialist nations, or when strategic raw materials were monopolized, or when areas of a strategic nature were occupied. It could also be indirect, as when foreign dominion brought added prestige and increased bargaining power for the imperialist state or for leading persons and groups within it.

Ideology. Frequently imperialist ideologies have been merely convenient cloaks to cover other drives. But throughout human history certain political, religious, or cultural beliefs have sometimes waxed so strong as to force states independently into “missionary” activities, to spread “civilization,” or the “true” gospel, or a particular national culture or dominant political creed.

Diversion of domestic unrest. Aggressive action abroad has often been believed capable of deflecting domestic tension. Once set in motion, however, this mechanism has frequently gone beyond its original purpose. In Schumpeter’s words, “…created by wars that required it, the machine now created the wars it required” ([1919-1927] 1951, p. 33). Other writers have suggested that totalitarian regimes are particularly prone to expansionist policies. Since internal rule cannot be maintained unless the system is insulated from foreign influences, totalitarian countries tend to show the twin reactions of isolation and expansion in order to avoid or destroy threatening foreign forces (Feier-abend 1962).

Methods of control

Imperial relationships may be further classified according to the way control is exercised over subject peoples.

Types of pressure exerted. Pressure can range from relatively peaceful practices (normal financial and economic transactions, cultural activities, diplomatic argument) through more forceful measures (bribery, economic sanctions, military intimidation) to outright violence (varying from a temporary show of arms to actual conquest and permanent repression).

Legal instruments. International law contains a great variety of instruments that can be used to exercise control: leases, concessions, capitulations, suzerainty, protectorates, mandates, trusteeships, forced alliances, temporary occupations, permanent annexations, etc.

Actual political relations. Following Hans Kohn (1958, p. 4), one may distinguish five types of imperial relationships, according to whether (1) a subject people has full autonomy within an imperial framework; (2) individual subjects enjoy full citizenship in the imperial state but are denied the expression of separate nationhood; (3) subject peoples are reduced to permanently inferior status; (4) subject peoples are physically exterminated; or (5) one nation establishes and maintains political domination over a geographically external political unit inhabited by people of any race and at any state of cultural development. Kohn reserves the term “colonialism” for the last of these categories.

Activating forces

Different kinds of imperialism, as well as theories about imperialism, may be distinguished according to whether particular individuals, special social groups, a particular condition of nations, or the general characteristics of the international system are thought to constitute the core of imperialist action.

Individuals as the main agents of imperialism. Imperialist policies can stem mainly from the special ambitions of, or the particular psychological pressures working on, people in positions of effective political influence. This influence can result either from their formal or informal political roles at home or from their strategic importance in connection with particular diplomatic constellations abroad (e.g., Cecil Rhodes and other “private imperialists”). This category would also include those theories which attribute imperialism to the parallel but individual psychological reactions of people which sustain group aggression. Usually, however, both the role and the reactions of individuals can be explained satisfactorily only on the basis of particular social conditions and relationships.

Social groups as the carriers of imperialism. Nearly every kind of social group has been held responsible for imperialist actions: ruling dynasties, out for glory, wealth, and dominion; aristocratic warrior castes, depending on wars for status and income; military officers and civilian officials, whose loyalties are swayed by their exclusive identification with the interests of the state they serve; the middle classes as the natural supporters of national states; religious and intellectual ideolo-gizers who extol a particular political system or culture; the peasantry, sensitive to traditional love for the fatherland and easily persuaded of the value of gaining new land through foreign conquest; the urban proletariat, likely to cheer foreign adventures in compensation for their own downtrodden existence, etc. But closer analysis usually reveals the inadequacy of single-group explanations, partly because their postulated unity is proved false by detailed historical inquiry and partly because the special importance of certain groups can itself be accounted for only by other factors.

Imperialism as an extension of nationalism. Whereas older sociologists saw the roots of imperialism in racial struggle, more modern thinkers have pointed particularly to the forces behind assertive nationalism. These, in turn, they have explained as the inevitable outcome of particular communication processes which constantly reinforce nationalist cohesion at the expense of international interaction; as a deflection of widespread insecurity (itself a product of manifold social changes) toward alleged enemies at home and abroad; as the inevitable result of the distortions or stereotypes in the perception of other groups and nations; or as the product of new ideologies that ascribe to particular nations special rights in the assumed international struggle for survival. Such theories have the merit of wide applicability, but they fail to account for the lack of expansionist policies on the part of some nations, as well as for the occurrence of imperialism long before nationalism developed as a dominant factor in world politics.

Imperialism as the natural consequence of international power relations. Many observers have held imperialism to be the inevitable result of the simultaneous existence of independent sovereign states. Some have started from the assumption that a balance of power situation leads automatically to attempts by rivals on either side to strengthen their positions at the expense of weaker states and territories; this then initiates a vicious circle of fear, distrust, and armaments which strengthens aggressive tendencies. Others have laid more stress on the objective instability of power relations, as each war sows the seeds of a new one through the continued expansionist spirit of the victor or revanchist desires on the part of the loser. Seemingly stable power relations can, moreover, become unstable through changes of will or modifications in power variables which stir up new fears and new hopes for conquest. Others have regarded the relations between stronger and weaker states as unstable by definition.

As is clear from these and similar models, the explanation of imperialism shades into a general theory of international relations. The term loses its historical connotation and becomes a purely theoretical concept, differently defined in the context of specific theoretical systems.

The word “imperialism” is, therefore, entirely at the mercy of its user. It has been corroded by over-frequent, emotional usage, but if overuse has blunted it as an intellectual tool, the resulting vagueness has certainly not diminished its potency as a political slogan.

Hans Daalder

[See alsoColonialism; Foreign aid; Modernization; Nationalism;Pan movements; Trusteeship. Other relevant material may be found inEconomic growth; Empires;International relations; Social movements; and in the biographies of Fanon; Hobson; Kautsky; Lenin; Luxemburg; Schumpeter.]


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David Healy

Imperialism, in its most precise traditional usage, means the forcible extension of governmental control over foreign areas not designated for incorporation as integral parts of the nation. The term is commonly used to mean any significant degree of national influence, public or private, over other societies; but to some it refers principally to foreign economic exploitation with or without other actions. In all usages, however, the essential element is that one society must in some way impose itself upon another in a continuing unequal relationship. Thus, American expansionism dated from the beginning of the national experience, while its evolution into true imperialism occurred only in the later nineteenth century.


The expansion of the United States from 1803 to 1853 into contiguous areas such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, the Oregon territories, and the Mexican cession is not best described as imperialism, although it contained related elements. This expansion involved lightly populated areas in which the influx of settlement from the older portions of the nation soon constituted the great bulk of the inhabitants. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a profoundly anti-imperialist measure, had early defined the process by which such areas could be divided into prospective states and ultimately brought into the union as equal members. The resulting expansion represented the continuous extension of a single society over vast neighboring areas, rather than the takeover of one society by another.

The North American continent was not unoccupied; indigenous Indian tribes were found in every part of it, while the areas taken from Mexico contained many scattered settlements, particularly in California and around Santa Fe. Neither the people nor the government of the United States showed much interest in such preexisting societies; the aim of the United States was to brush them aside and replace them with the society and culture of the incoming majority. This was particularly true in regard to the Indians; rather than take over Indian society, the whites virtually destroyed it. The process was tragic for its victims, and Americans' constant assertions that they were peopling an empty continent contained the seeds of hypocrisy. There were nevertheless important differences between the movement of such a settlement frontier and the establishment of a true empire. For example, while the United States acquired half of Mexico's national territory between 1845 and 1848, the transfer entailed less than 2 percent of the Mexican population. Broadly speaking, the Mexican War was fought to gain territory, not a captive people, and the land thus gained would be populated largely from the existing United States. For purposes of comparison, the activities of the British in India, where they ruled a teeming alien society, and the British in Australia, where they settled a continent and built a self-governing nation, were so dissimilar that the use of a single term to describe both cases does more to obscure than enlighten. Prior to the Civil War, American expansion came closer to the Australian example, though dispossessing a more numerous indigenous people, and the end result cannot be accurately classified as imperialism.

There were, of course, common features in the earlier expansion and later imperialism of the United States. Chief among these were a strong sense of national mission and special destiny, a general confidence in the unique superiority of American institutions, a belief in the inequality of races and peoples, and the very habit of expansion itself. The expansionism of "manifest destiny" could lead toward true imperialism, as in the abortive movement to annex all of Mexico during the Mexican War. If westward expansion was not the same as imperialism, it furnished some of the materials out of which the latter could grow.


The purchase of Alaska in 1867 ended the period when new territory was assumed to be on the path to eventual statehood. By that time the nation's policymakers were already debating a new and more truly imperialist form of expansion. Schemes to acquire Cuba, by purchase or otherwise, had been current from 1848 onward, while in 1870 the Ulysses S. Grant administration negotiated the annexation of the Dominican Republic, only to see the Senate reject the instrumental treaty. Critics of this latter scheme were quick to point out the break with tradition implicit in the quest for territory already compactly settled by an alien society. Such a society could be assimilated into the nation proper only with great difficulty and over a long period, or more probably it could not be assimilated at all. Thus, the United States had to choose between incorporating an unassimilated people into its federal system, thereby endangering its integrity, or ruling them as colonial subjects in violation of the right to self-government supposedly inherent in the American political system. Foreshadowed by the earlier opposition to the all-Mexico movement of the late 1840s, the Senate debate over the annexation of the Dominican Republic developed the main lines of the controversy over imperialist expansion and marked the maturing of an active anti-imperialism in the United States.

For a generation after 1870, projects for further expansion attracted little support in the United States, and most people assumed that imperialism had become a dead issue. A number of developments, however, prepared the nation for imperial ventures at the end of the century. Chief were the rapid industrialization and soaring productivity of the national economy, which made the United States the leading industrial power by 1900. Increasingly conscious of their numbers, wealth, and strength, and proud of their unique institutions and sprawling territory, Americans began to aspire to a place for their country among the world's great powers. The severe economic depression of the 1890s added material aims to the drive for prestige, as the nation's business leaders and political spokesmen hoped for economic salvation in increased exports of American manufactures. By the mid-1890s, a new mood had brought a reappraisal of America's world position.

While largely internal forces first prompted the nation's leaders to look outward, the global sweep of European imperialism was reaching its high point, providing both the model and the final impetus for the new activism. Initially, Americans reacted to European imperialism as a threat to be repelled, fearing its penetration into the Western Hemisphere. Still mindful of France's incursion into Mexico in the 1860s, Americans were startled by a French project in 1879 to build a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Later they also came to see Great Britain as a potential interloper, inspiring Secretary of State Richard Olney to a famous warning against such penetration during the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. Fears of European encroachment undoubtedly added urgency to the drive for Hawaiian annexation after 1894 and figured in discussions of Caribbean expansion later in the decade. One result of such fears was advocacy of a sort of preemptive imperialism, a conviction that the United States should seize desirable areas before a rival power got them.

In addition, the constant example of the European powers in time led many in the United States to take a more positive view of imperialism. Thirsting for national prestige, they saw that colonies were highly valued status symbols in Europe and that colonial empires had already swallowed up most of the non-Western world. Furthermore, if Europeans claimed to spread civilization to unenlightened peoples, did not the United States have a more compelling mission to implant its own superior institutions? Finally, the theorists of the Old World had proclaimed that colonial empires could provide strategic bases, captive markets, raw materials, and investment opportunitiesin short, could alleviate the persistent distresses from which the American economy suffered.

By 1895 a small but growing number of American politicians, publicists, naval officers, and businessmen supported a modest expansionist program. This generally included the annexation of Hawaii, the acquisition of one or more base areas in the West Indies, and the construction of an isthmian canal across Central America to facilitate naval and mercantile movement between the eastern United States and the Pacific Ocean. Some also aspired to the peaceable annexation of Canada, while others wished to challenge British political and economic leadership in South America. But virtually all limited their ambitions to the Western Hemisphere, and most to areas traditionally within the sphere of American interests. While this program fell short of a full-fledged scheme of empire, it gave a specific direction to expansionist currents and reinforced the appeal of the imperialist idea.

Many Americans continued to be suspicious of imperialism, but others found that it was increasingly easy to identify imperialism with many aspects of the American tradition. Territorial expansion, a strong sense of national mission, and a dynamic economic growth had been dominant themes in American history. The belief in the inequality of man, which imperialism demanded, offered few problems at a time when the South was even then perfecting a system of segregation and disfranchisement of blacks, the West was in the final stages of suppressing the Indians, and the East fulminated against the inferiority of the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Currently popular theories of social Darwinism held that the various races of man progressed at differing rates according to their place on the evolutionary scale, or failed to progress and fell victim to "natural selection." No one believed more devoutly in progress than Americans, and the presumed duty of carrying progress to backward lands was popularly called "the white man's burden." This combined belief in progress and human inequality, along with boundless self-confidence and a hope of gain, constituted the principal attitudes that underlay imperialism.

Whether the imperialist appeal was chiefly economic, psychological, nationalist, or idealistic has long been the subject of contention. In fact, it was all of these, and perhaps more. The most fundamental explanation of the global imperialism of the nineteenth century was that the Western world, containing a relatively small minority of the world's people, had achieved a virtual monopoly of effective power. The development of the nation-state enabled the effective mobilization of a society's resources, and coincided with the growth of modern science and industrialization. The latter developments created societies of unprecedented wealth and armed them with weapons of unparalleled destructiveness, while the steamship, the railroad, the telegraph, and the oceanic cable greatly diminished the distances that separated the Western peoples from the rest of the world.

The disparity of power between "modern" and preindustrial societies reached its maximum in the nineteenth century, and it was this disparity that was, quite directly, the driving force behind the breakneck colonialism of the period. Conscious of their strength and brought into close contact with weaker peoples, Europeans quickly developed a sense of superiority and discovered desirable goals to seek in vulnerable foreign places. The process soon created its own mystique, which could be shared by almost any member-state in the Western world. While American imperialism had special national characteristicsas did that of England, France, Germany, and other nationsduring the 1890s, American imperialism was not essentially different from the parent European variety. Its American disciples believed otherwise, having as firm a faith in their own uniqueness as their European rivals.


Although this new thinking rapidly gained ground during the 1890s, it took the shock of tangible events to bridge the gap between ideas and action. After a revolution in Hawaii, which American officials actively abetted, the proposed annexation of Hawaii in 1893 reawakened the debate over colonial expansion but was blocked by the transfer of the presidency from Benjamin Harrison to Grover Cleveland. It was rather the revolt that began in Cuba in 1895 that ultimately mobilized the emotions and ideas of the new expansionism. In 1898 the United States was drawn into a struggle between Cuba and Spain that had brought mass suffering and wholesale destruction to its very borders. An aggressive national pride, emotional partisanship in favor of the Cubans, and tangible damage to American trade and propertyall worked to arouse the public and the press, while the dramatic destruction of the battleship Maine acted as a spark to these combustibles. Originally regarded by most Americans as a crusade to free Cuba, the Spanish-American War quickly took on an expansionist thrust. The retention of Puerto Rico, Spain's other Caribbean colony, was soon regarded as a necessary war reparation. Strategically the key to the Pacific, Hawaii was annexed during the war by a joint resolution of Congress. Even the cries to free Cuba gave way to protests that the Cubans needed a period of tutelage before essaying complete self-government.

It was the Philippine Islands, however, that most forcefully brought the imperialist issue to a head. Large, populous, alien, and distant, they neither fell within the traditional geographical scope of American expansionism nor seemed even remotely assimilable to the American federal system. In the United States there had been little thought of acquiring the Philippines before the Spanish-American War, but once war came, the U.S. armed forces attacked them because they represented valuable enemy territory that was highly vulnerable. The initial American victories quickly led to a national conviction that the United States now controlled the islands and was responsible for determining their destiny. Expansionists were quick to argue that the nation should not turn the Filipinos back to Spanish misrule, while to let them drift would invite an Anglo-German struggle for their control. On the other hand, American rule could bring enlightenment to the islands, and their proximity to China might aid American penetration of what was assumed to be one of the great world markets of the future.

Expansionism carried the day, and the peace treaty with Spain provided for American possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Hawaii had already been separately annexed, and Cuba was subjected to a three-year military occupation followed by a theoretically sovereign independence in 1902. In fact, however, Cuba became a self-governing protectorate of the United States, with the latter nation retaining important governmental controls and the right of military intervention at its discretion, under the terms of the Platt Amendment of 1901. In the Philippines, meanwhile, an armed independence movement revolted against American rule in 1899, and the ensuing three-year Filipino-American War introduced the Americans to the frustrations and mutual atrocities characteristic of antiguerrilla warfare. The public had expected the Filipinos to greet the advent of American rule with cheers and were disillusioned to meet with hostility instead. Critics questioned the utility of the new colony and the morality of subduing it by force. While U.S. forces finally succeeded in crushing all resistance, anti-imperialists made the most of the contradictions inherent in spreading enlightenment at the point of a bayonet. Colonial empire quickly lost its glamour in the United States, while less formal techniques of expansion gained easier acceptance from the relative success of the Cuban protectorate program. In the twentieth century, American imperialism would be characterized by the extension of influence or control rather than by the outright annexation of territory.


After 1900 the American public lost interest in its new colonies, but the United States continued to expand its power in essentially imperialist ways. This was true principally in the Caribbean region, where the creation of formal and informal protectorates characterized American foreign policy in the period after the Spanish-American War. The war had spurred interest in the building of an isthmian canal, which was to be built as a national project; and following Panama's secession from Colombia in 1903, the project became a reality. The great strategic importance of the Panama Canal, thereafter joined with the considerable American stake in Cuba and its direct sovereignty over Puerto Rico, drew the nation further into Caribbean affairs.

Still fearful of European intervention and solicitous of the growing American economic interest in the area, policymakers in Washington viewed the chronic political instability of the Caribbean and Central American nations as an invitation to foreign penetration and an obstacle to local development. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, enunciated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, claimed for the United States an "international police power," which entailed a general right to intervene and keep order in the Western Hemisphere. Not only Roosevelt but his successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, steadily expanded American hegemony in the Caribbean. By World War I, Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua were in some kind of protectorate status, while Puerto Rico remained an outright colony. Actual military interventions occurred in Cuba (19061909), Haiti (19151934), the Dominican Republic (19161924), Nicaragua (1912, 19271933), and Panama (intermittently and on a lesser scale).

Besides the use of special treaty relationships and military force, the United States attempted to maintain a "monopoly of lending," under which Caribbean governments would borrow money only in the United States; it also established customs receiverships in several countries, which effectively placed their government revenues under control of the United States. Meanwhile, private enterprise had permeated the region with American investment and business activity, while the one-crop economies of the Caribbean nations made them heavily dependent upon the American market. Thus, the nominally sovereign states of the Caribbean area were subject to American controls, both formal and informal, which made their real status essentially colonial.

After 1898, the United States was also active in the Far East, but its impact was weaker there than in the Caribbean. Faced with a huge and populous China, and competing with most of the other major world powers, American policymakers could not aspire to regional dominance or military solutions. The "dollar diplomacy" of the William Howard Taft administration (19091913) attempted to foster American investment in China and to create international financial arrangements, which would impose a Caribbean-style "monopoly of lending" upon the government of China. This attempt to mobilize American economic strength as a diplomatic tool accomplished little in the Far East, however, on account of both the difficulties of the situation itself and the limited interest of the nation's business and financial leaders. The earlier Open Door policy of 18991900, therefore, remained the principal basis of policy. It represented little more than an attempt to obtain a general agreement to preserve the existing treaty system of shared control in China, and thus equality of economic opportunity in China for the United States. The policy was not very effective, and the Chinese market never came near to meeting the inflated expectations of the West. In general, the limited objectives and relative ineffectiveness of American activities in the Far East fell well short of real imperialism in this period, although the United States was long a party to the treaty system by which the Western powers jointly had imposed a limited protectorate upon China.


American participation in World War I led to a revulsion against overseas commitments, which reached its peak in the Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the new League of Nations. Rising domestic criticism in the 1920s brought about the liquidation of the military government in the Dominican Republic and moderate relaxation of American political controls elsewhere in the Caribbean. At the same time, however, the U.S. government and business community cooperated in pushing American exports and foreign loans, leading some later historians to envision an "open door imperialism" based on American economic influence abroad. An alternate view was that the United States did indeed seek such economic influence, but that most Americans then thought it possible to separate the political and economic aspects of international relations in a manner considered unrealistic by later generations.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought an even greater emphasis on the economic side of foreign policy and a corresponding decline in interest in other aspects. The Good Neighbor policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the dismantling of Caribbean military interventions and political protectorates, at the same time that Latin America was tied more closely to the American economy by means of reciprocal trade agreements. The Philippine Islands were set on the path to independence in 1934, while the Neutrality Acts of 19351938 were designed to minimize economic ties to belligerents in foreign wars. The Monroe Doctrine took on a new theoretical formulation as an association of hemispheric equals for collective security, and the isolationist majority in the United States eschewed any national interest in the world's affairs outside the Western Hemisphere. American imperialism was declared to be dead, never to arise again.

At the end of the 1930s there was a rapid reversal of thinking largely caused by the early victories of Nazi Germany during the new European war, and particularly by the shock created by the fall of France in 1940. Americans quickly became internationalists, the new consensus being that the world's democracies must stand together to check the crimes of "gangster nations" like Germany, Italy, and Japan. It now appeared that peace was indivisible and that the United States must be concerned with events in every corner of the globe. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor late in 1941, the United States went to war in both Europe and Asia. During World War II, the United States fought as a member of a coalition that included Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Nationalist China, and many lesser membersa circumstance that drew the United States even further into global affairs. Mobilizing enormous fighting power and productivity, Americans found themselves at the close of the struggle with their armed forces deployed in Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Australasia, and Latin America.


World War II humbled or drastically weakened every great power except the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which emerged with greatly enhanced power and prestige. In a world full of power vacuums, this dangerously simplified bipolar balance contributed to a growing rivalry between the two superpowers, as did the strong but mutually contradictory ideas of mission that each possessed. Initially competing for hegemony in Europe, this postwar rivalry soon became global in scope, and American military and political commitments proliferated. At the same time, the preeminent economic position of the United States at the end of World War II much enhanced its influence abroad and gave it great weight in shaping the economic structure of the noncommunist world. Thus, American influence over other societies reached a new high and took many different forms. In the Caribbean, the United States supported anticommunist military ventures in Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (1961), and in 1965, out of fear that a leftist government would come to power, intervened in the Dominican Republic. In East Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, and, later, South Vietnam and Cambodia became heavily dependent upon U.S. military aid. Japan grew into an economic giant but retained close ties to the United States. Other initiatives in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere made American activities truly global.

In the economic sphere, the United States overwhelmingly became the chief investor, source of credit, and supplier of new technologies. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the American dollar was the yardstick of international currency exchanges, while an American-sponsored drive toward freer world trade facilitated American exports of goods and money. The purchase of foreign subsidiaries and the development of multinational corporations gave American business enterprise increased influence abroad, while many foreign nations found their principal export markets in the United States.

The political and economic impact of the United States was accompanied by significant social effects. American-style mass consumption spread its appeal everywhere, as the elite of half the globe rushed to emulate the lifestyles of New York and California. American tourists, motion pictures, and television programs went everywhere, while students flocked to American universities from all over the world. Even an economically advanced country like Japan assimilated American models of dress and amusement, and readily accepted bondage to the automobile.

Some viewed the international vogue of American lifestyles and consumer products as cultural imperialism, or a thinly veiled form of economic exploitation. Others deplored the subversion of native cultures and the consequent destabilization of traditional societies by the tide of westernization. Many twenty-first-century scholars, however, are skeptical of the idea of a one-sided cultural aggression, citing the eagerness with which Eastern Europeans and others sought Western fashions, films, and popular music even when their governments attempted to shut these things out. In this view, developments in the Western world have set off an irresistible global cultural change, in which cross-fertilization complicates any notion of a simple one-way influence. Terms such as "modernization" and "globalization" are used to suggest a generalized force beyond the control of any one society. It was nevertheless the United States that led the way in the process.

In any case, the worldwide distribution of U.S. military bases, security agreements, investments, multinational corporations, foreign-aid programs, and open and undercover political activities gave rise to the charge that American imperialism had not only revived but had expanded over enormous areas. Some critics described an "open door empire" in which American foreign policy sought to impose everywhere the conditions necessary for the penetration of American exports and enterprise, while keeping underdeveloped nations in a state of perpetual economic colonialism. From this point of view, the term "imperialism" applied to virtually every overseas activity of the United States.

Given the undeniably great impact of the United States in the postwar world, the issue was not whether there had been an American influence on other societies but whether that influence was best described as imperialism. Since the United States annexed no territory during the period in question, the most obvious form of imperialism does not apply; there was no formal empire. There were, however, attempts at neo-imperial control of other states. In 1965 the Dominican Republic experienced a U.S. military intervention that imposed a new president, who was retained in power for many years by the active use of American influence and machinations of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Ronald Reagan administration (19811989) supported civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in an attempt to bolster right-wing regimes against leftist opponents. Other cases could be cited, but blanket assertions of imperialism went too far. It was doubtful terminology to apply that label to the postwar American record in Europe. It is true that the United States threw its influence into an effort to erect a liberal-capitalist system in Western Europe, just as the Soviet Union worked for Marxist-Leninist states in Eastern Europe. Given a virtual power vacuum in one of the world's vital centers, no less was to be expected of either superpower. It is also true that the Marshall Plan and companion policies were designed not only to aid European economic recovery but to boost European purchases of American exports. Yet the end result was not merely exploitive, for it helped to recreate in Western Europe one of the great industrial centers of the world, which soon offered stiff competition to the United States itself. Like Japan, West Germany pressed American manufacturers hard in their own markets and often bested them in markets abroad. In time, many European states became effective competitors. To call this performance economic imperialism is both misleading and intellectually counterproductive.

The U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia during the 1960s ended in the following decade in humiliating failure and a national reappraisal of the American role abroad. For a time, the shadow of Vietnam inhibited further overseas adventures, but the global network of American commitments and interests continued largely intact. Foreign involvements reappeared with the previously mentioned Reagan administration's activities in Central America, as well as its military deployments in Grenada (1983) and Lebanon (1984), but on a limited scale.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union changed the global situation fundamentally, leaving the United States as the only superpower. The Cold War justification for foreign military interventions thereby disappeared, but new reasons for such ventures multiplied. In varying scales of magnitude, U.S. armed forces were deployed in Panama (1989), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999), the latter including a bombing campaign against Serbia. By far the largest overseas operation was the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq, which involved more than 500,000 U.S. troops to protect the industrial world's oil supply, but motives for the other interventions varied widely. In Somalia, for example, where no visible U.S. interests were at stake, the goal was to remove the obstacles to feeding a starving population, and in Bosnia and Kosovo it was to prevent the out-break of regional war and prevent mass genocide. Some saw the United States as world policeman, others as global bully, but none could deny the reality of the nation's power and influence virtually everywhere on the globe.

As the world's strongest and wealthiest nation for the last half century, the United States was responsible for its full share of neo-imperialist hegemony. At times, however, it acted abroad in conjunction with less powerful nations that lacked the American capacity to project force quickly to crisis areas. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Gulf War both saw U.S. military power enlisted in the service of a broad coalition of nations and interests. Operating within a highly competitive global economy, U.S. economic power was great but hardly hegemonic, while its cultural influences were eagerly received in large parts of the world even if deeply resented in others. No single definition can contain the enormous variety of American activities, motives, and effects on the world; certainly the term "imperialism" cannot.


Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E. "Shame on US? Academics, Cultural Transfer, and the Cold WarA Critical Review." Diplomatic History 24 (summer 2000). Traces the evolving debate about U.S. cultural expansion since 1945.

Healy, David. U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison, Wis., 1970. A multi-causal approach that shows the convergence of numerous and dissimilar forces in the movement for overseas empire.

Hollander, Paul. Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 19651990. New York, 1992. A stimulating look at the views of the naysayers, domestic and foreign.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 18601898. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963. Depicts American overseas expansion as creating a commercial empire in order to serve a drive for export markets.

Lundestad, Geir. The American "Empire" and Other Studies of U.S. Foreign Policy in a Comparative Prospect. New York, 1990. Explores the ambiguities of American power abroad.

May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. New York, 1961. Sees the expansionism of 1898 in terms of an eruption of public opinion that swept the nation's leaders before it.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York, 1982. A useful broad-gauge approach.

Thornton, A. P. Doctrines of Imperialism. New York, 1965. A short but good conceptual study of imperialism.

Trask, David. The War with Spain in 1898. New York and London, 1981. The best work on that conflict.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore, 1935. Still a standard work on the ideology of continental expansion.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Cleveland, Ohio, 1959. An influential book that helped launch a revisionist movement in American diplomatic history and popularize an "Open Door School," which held that the economic goals of capitalism were central to the formation of U.S. foreign policy.

See also Anti-Imperialism; Colonialism and Neocolonialism; Continental Expansion; Dollar Diplomacy; Economic Policy and Theory; Intervention and Nonintervention; Isolationism; Mandates and Trusteeships; Open Door Policy; Protectorates and Spheres of Influence .


"It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save as are for their welfare. All this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

"Our interests and those of our southern neighbors are in reality identical. They have great natural riches, and if within their borders the reign of law and justice obtains, prosperity is sure to come to them."

From President Theodore Roosevelt's annual message to Congress, 6 December 1904


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Imperialism as a distinct set of ideas can be traced to the second half of the nineteenth century; it refers primarily to a political system based on colonies governed from an imperial metropolitan center for direct or indirect economic benefit. Commonly associated with the policy of direct extension of sovereignty and dominion over noncontiguous and often distant overseas territories, it also denotes indirect political or economic control of powerful states over weaker peoples. Regarded also as a doctrine based on the use of deliberate force, imperialism has been subject to moral censure by its critics, and thus the term is frequently used in international propaganda as a pejorative for expansionist and aggressive foreign policy.


Although the term empire (Latin: imperium ), inhering in the idea of supreme command or authority, is regarded as part of a universal human political experience since the rise of polities in antiquity, imperialism is more narrowly dated to the era of colonial empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this era the economic and military advantages of mercantile, industrialist, and capitalist countries were translated into a more or less systematic and formal policy of conquest, annexation, and administration of the world outside of Europe and the Americas. Between 1880 and 1914 much of this world was partitioned in territories under the direct rule of European countries, or subjected to their political influence. Led by Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and later followed by Russia and Japan, principal powers of the world divided Asia into informal zones of influence, and carved up the Pacific and Africa into new territorial, and mostly colonial, units. The expectation of asymmetrical and iniquitous distribution of political-economic gains was complemented by the roughly contemporaneous idea that the world was inhabited by advanced and backward races and nations, and that imperial expansion was also in part the preponderance of those who were fit and thus destined to rule. In the 1890s many contemporary observers associated imperial expansionism with a new phase in the development of international capitalism, one that succeeded the era of free competition and economic liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century. This particular use of the term imperialism has often been attributed to V. I. Lenin, the architect of the Russian Revolution. John A. Hobson (18581940) noted the heightened currency of the term in the late nineteenth century, both in political discussion and common speech. Whether they were influenced by Karl Marxs theories or not, contemporaries were aware of the economic roots of this new version of imperial expansion, which they identified with the territorial division of the world among major European powers into formal or informal colonies and spheres of influence. Such claims among European military and economic rivals were nowhere more evident than at the Berlin Conference of 1884, hosted by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (18151898), who had come to the conclusion that an Africa divided along colonial lines by mutual agreement among the European empires would safeguard markets and raw materials. This move led to the proclamation of a number of protectorates and colonies, known as the scramble for Africa, and the eventual partition of the entire continent.

The ties between mercantile capital, empire-building, and colonial ventures had already been secured by the late eighteenth century. Capital invested in the triangular trade between England, Africa, and the Caribbean had a profound impact on New World Iberian colonies. The African slave trade, for example, provided the labor for Brazilian and Caribbean plantations that produced sugar for much of western Europe and North America. During the early nineteenth century, settler colonies were also becoming important, both commercially and politically, best articulated perhaps in the context of Upper and Lower Canada by John Lambton, Lord Durham (17921840) in his Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839). While drawing up the report he was ably assisted by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (17961862) and Charles Buller (18061848), both of whom were well known for their progressive and radical views on social reform. The Durham Report, which effectively safeguarded British influence over a divided Canada, advocated responsible government through graduated constitutional change, while at the same time recognizing the value of commerce and investment. It also delineated imperial trade and foreign policy, and the regulation of colonial settlement through a careful distribution of public lands by the British government.

Already by the 1840s colonies had assumed heightened importance as welcome outlets, not only for criminals and outcasts, but also for increasingly large numbers of migrants who could not secure adequate employment and resources in the mother country. There were many theorists and advocates of settler colonialism, among them the radical Wakefield, who called for a systematic colonization of the Australian continent, arguing that a successful transference depended on the compatibility of capital and labor, and economic opportunity to create harmony between the different classes of settlers. The absorption of redundant people in the colonies, Wakefield pointed out in his View of the Art of Colonization (1849), would result in increased supply of food and raw materials for manufacture for the inhabitants of the empire at home. Wakefield clearly anticipated the importance of empire for the accumulation of capital and investment overseas.

It was Bruno Bauer (18091882), the German philosopher, historian, and theologian, and also onetime leader of the left-Hegelians, who advanced the idea of imperialism as a powerful and disruptive global political force. The entry of Russia as a world power, he predicted, would usher in a new era of transnational imperial rivalry. According to Bauer, this was the result of the contradictions that had arisen between the demands of modern mass society and the political absolutism of the state, a symptom of the crisis of the old European liberal order (Bauer 1882). Thus, for example, in Bismarcks model of state-based socialism in Germany, economic production was subjected to close political control, driven by the need to rein in the unruly forces of capitalism. In Benjamin Disraelis England, in contrast, political leaders sought a mass mandate for imperial policies in order to shore up and bolster a paternalist monarchy whose institutional basis had been eroded by the force of economic change. Bauers verged on an apocalyptic vision, portending heightened imperial rivalry across the world, resulting in a war among the leading nations.

Imperialism and nationalism had long been regarded as kindred forces. At the turn of the century, among theorists who challenged this commonly accepted idea was the British liberal economist John A. Hobson, who argued in his influential Imperialism: A Study (1902) that the drive for imperialist expansion in Europe could not be fully explained by the rise of patriotic nationalism. From the vantage point of an entire nation and its people, the policy of imperial expansion did not result in long-term and tangible economic benefits; the costs of wars of expansion far outweighed the returns, and indeed, necessary social reforms that would have benefited the economically disadvantaged sections of the population were often set aside in favor of imperial adventurism. Such policies, however, served the financial interests of capitalists and their representative political groups, who were, according to Hobson, custodians of the imperial engine. Periodic congestion of capital in manufacturing, resulting from uneven distribution of income, falling demand, and excess goods and capital inside a given nation-state, urged the search for investment outlets overseas, thus driving the search for new markets and opportunities for investment in foreign markets, including distant colonies and dependencies. This process was further propelled through the practices of larger firms and financial groups operating in trusts and combines that sought restrictions on output in order to avert loss through overproduction. Hobsons study, which focused on business cycles, behavior of financial groups, and patterns of overseas investment, directly influenced Marxist thinkers in their analysis of imperialism.


During the early decades of the twentieth century there were many radical critics on the Left who saw the rise of imperialism as a historical force intimately tied to the worldwide expansion and consolidation of finance capital. As Lenin in his introduction to Nikolai Bukharins tract Imperialism and World Economy (1917 [1972]) noted succinctly: The typical ruler of the world became finance capital, a power that is peculiarly mobile and flexible, particularly intertwined at home and internationally, peculiarly devoid of individuality and divorced from the immediate process of production, peculiarly easy to concentrate (p. 11). Much of the debate centered on Marxs prediction about the concentration of capital. Rudolf Hilferding in Finance Capital (1910 [1981]) and Otto Bauer in Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The Nationalities Question and the Social Democracy, 1907), extending Marxian ideas of capital accumulation, argued that the sectors of banking and finance had increasingly started to exert pressure on industrial production, leading to the formation of monopolies and cartels, the quest for protection of markets, and ultimately to economic imperialism, international rivalry, and war. Similarly, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born German revolutionary and founder of the Polish Social Democratic Party and the Spartacus League (which later became the German Communist Party), forcefully argued in her 1913 tract Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (The Accumulation of Capital) that imperialism was the direct result of the dynamic and aggressive inroad of capitalism into the less economically advanced parts of the world.

Bukharin and Lenin, stalwarts of Bolshevism and veterans of the October Revolution, took these ideas further, advancing that imperialism was not a contest for world domination among rival races such as Slavs and Teutons, but the direct result of a particular form of capitalism marked by the changing structure of financial investment and relations of production. Colonial expansion and imperial wars were indeed signs of a developing global economy. Bukharin saw the global expansion of finance capital as a historic phenomenon tied to new national rivalries, fiscal competition, and imperial conquest.

Lenin penned a small tract, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917 [1970]), which soon became one of the most influential of all Marxist studies on the subject. Lenin saw imperialism as closely tied to the normal functions of an advanced capitalism that had already undergone profound changes along with the development of modern European nation-states. More importantly, monopoly capitalism had already edged out an earlier form of competitive capitalism marked by the free entry and exit of small and large-scale industries and businesses. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, an advanced stage of capital was already in progress where open economic competition and production of commodities were replaced by predatory monopolies and cartels. For Lenin, a good example of this process was the changed role of banks as financial intermediaries to monopolistic interest groups, merging readily with industry and leading to the domination of finance capital and the unprecedented concentration of production. As a result, a fundamental and historic feature of capitalism had been altered: What was once characterized by the separation of ownership of capital from the process of production was now marked by a separation of finance capital from industrial capital. Lenin held that new finance capital had outpaced commodities in reaching far corners of the world, heightening actual divisions and rivalry between trading groups and nations. New segments of the world market were thus being appropriated by monopoly capital, with the merging of corporationssuch as conglomerates in the oil industryto weed out competition.

Lenin saw the division of the world among colonial and imperial powers as closely associated with the transformative power of finance capital. Thus the scramble among powerful nations for colonial expansion was largely fueled by the drive for raw materials and markets. Lenin famously proclaimed imperialism as the highest stage in the development of capitalism. As monopoly interest groups sought to divide the world into arenas of economic exploitation, they unleashed new rivalries over markets and raw materials among both advanced and less advanced capitalist nations. The uneven economic development of nations, including imperial and colonial powers, further intensified economic competition and political conflict.

Lenin was vehement in his opposition to other theorists of imperialism, especially his contemporary Karl Kautsky (18541938), one of the most influential voices among German Social Democrats before World War I. Kautsky in Die Internationalität und der Krieg (Imperialism and the War, 1914) argued that imperialism was indeed the logical outcome of capitalism, but was beset by its own fatal contradictions. Kautsky predicted that World War II would lead to the demise of imperialism as an international policy along with its global-industrial order, and rather than a worldwide communist revolution, it would create a new and peaceful consortium among advanced nations along with a cosmopolitan global economy free of imperialistic militarism.

This theorythat political, military, and ideological aspects of imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were essentially manifestations of deep-seated economic causes, especially the rise of monopolistic finance capital fueling the drive for overseas colonies and global marketsis often referred to as the Lenin-Hobson thesis. Although some of the basic premises of the thesis have been questioned in light of subsequent historyfor instance, the relationship between militarism and economic gain and also between colonialism and the expansion of finance capitalaspects of it continue to be influential. Critics of Lenin and Hobson, and of Marxist theories of imperialism in general, question the assertion that wars of colonial expansion or imperial rivalry were fought for solely economic reasons and that capitalism was the primary engine of colonial and imperial expansion. Some have argued that imperialism was an ideology inherently antithetical to the logic of capitalism and market economy, and as such, a relic of the past; others have sought its origins in the rise of mass politics and fascism (Arendt [1951] (1973)).

More recently, historians following Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1961) have questioned the very premise that the high tide of imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century was a new or unprecedented phenomenon, arguing instead for an extended period of free-trade imperialism bridging the era of mercantilist empires that developed during the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries and the nineteenth-century wars of imperial annexation. In this intermediate stage, European political and commercial interests were extended through indirect means, without the administrative responsibility of direct colonial rule. Relying largely on the history of the British Empire in Asia and Africa and the expansion of British financial interests in Latin America, such critics view imperialism as a long-unfolding process in which imperial occupation and commercial exploitation are the results of long-term, informal economic relationships between European commercial agents and local regimes, which in themselves were active participants in the process of empire building. Such formulations underscore the role of political regimes that eventually succumbed to European empires, and their subjects who resisted or became unequal partners in colonial economic expansion. They also emphasize the vital role played by newly independent Latin American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile as substantial markets, and as part of an extended informal empire (Hopkins 1994). These markets were crucial to British industrial production and finance capital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more generally to the global economy dominated by the United States and western Europe, without directly being part of the colonial system.

Despite such revisions, critics of imperialism still ascribe it to the direct or indirect manifestation of the march of global capitalism from the nineteenth century to the present. Sociologists such as Immanuel Wallerstein (1979, 1988) and economists such as Andre Gunder Frank (1966, 1967) consider European imperial expansion as part of a much larger history of the expansion of capitalism as a world-system, in which shifting economic cores and peripheries are mutually constituted through abiding asymmetric economic and political relationships. Others emphasize imperialism not so much as an economic but as a cultural and ideological force associated with European hegemony. In this wider and more general sense, imperialism has been related to post-Darwinian biological theories of race, theories of western industrial and technological superiority, militant nationalism, orientalism, and also modern-day environmentalism. Subject to such wide-ranging usage, imperialism is harder to define in the present context as a specific set of ideas. Rather, it is more accurately described as an all-purposive political orientation, no longer focused on the extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their internationally recognized boundaries, but much more on the political condition of a collective present (Hardt and Negri 2000) marked by a post-European global hegemony of displaced and multilocal capitalism.

SEE ALSO Capital; Capitalism; Colonialism; Decolonization; Determinism, Biological; Empire; Frank, Andre Gunder; Hegelians; Hilferding, Rudolf; Jingoism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Luxemburg, Rosa; Marx, Karl; Nationalism and Nationality; Neocolonialism; Neoimperialism; Racism; Underconsumption; Wallerstein, Immanuel; World-System


Adas, Michael. 1990. Machines As the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Arendt, Hannah. [1951] 1973. Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harvest Books.

Bauer, Bruno. 1882. Disraelis Romantischer und Bismarcks Sozialistischer Imperialismus (Disraelis Romantic and Bismarcks Socialist Imperialism). Chemnitz, Germany: E. Schmeitzer.

Bauer, Otto. 1907. Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The Nationalities Question and the Social Democracy). Vienna: Verlag der Wiener.

Bukharin, Nikolai. [1917] 1972. Imperialism and World Economy. London: Merlin.

Durham, John George Lambton, Earl. 1839. Report on the Affairs of British North America. London: Ridgways.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1966. The Development of Underdevelopment. Boston, MA: New England Free Press.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1967. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America; Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Grove, Richard. 1996. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001860. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hilferding, Rudolf. [1910] 1981. Finance Capital, ed. and trans. Tom Bottomore. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hobson, John A. 1902. Imperialism: A Study. New York: James Pott.

Hopkins, A. G. 1994. Informal Empire in Argentina: An Alternative View. Journal of Latin American Studies 26: 469484.

Kautsky, Karl. 1914. Die Internationalität und der Krieg (Imperialism and the War). Trans. William E. Bohn. International Socialist Review (November).

Lenin, Vladimir I. [1917] 1970. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin Selected Works, Vol. 1, 667766. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 1913. Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (The Accumulation of Capital ). Berlin: Buchhandlung Vorwärts Paul Singer.

Robinson, Ronald, and John Gallagher. 1961. Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. London: Macmillan.

Shumpeter, Joseph. 1951. Imperialism and Social Classes. Trans. Heinz Norden; ed. and intro., Paul M. Sweezy. New York: Kelley.

Wakefield, Edward Gibbon. 1849. View of the Art of Colonization. London: John W. Parker.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1979. The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1988. The Modern World System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 17301840s. New York: Academic Press.

Weaver, Frederick Stirton. 2000. Latin America in the World Economy: Mercantile Colonialism to Global Capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sudipta Sen


views updated May 21 2018


the early nineteenth century
the "new imperialism"
imperial ideology

In the context of nineteenth-century Europe, imperialism—from the Latin root imperium, meaning power or rule—signifies domination or control by a strong nation over weaker ones. Its most dramatic manifestation between 1789 and 1914 was Napoleon I's conquest of much of Europe up until 1812. There is no logical reason why the term should not also embrace Russia and the United States' huge territorial expansions during the course of the nineteenth century. Before the 1870s however the word was nearly always used in the context of the Napoleonic Empire alone and then afterward to describe something else: the expansion of European states overseas, usually to found colonies in the world beyond the confines of their own continent. This is the most common use of the word in the twenty-first century. It can also be taken to mean the advocacy of such expansion. Thus, an imperialist is someone who believes that his or her nation should pursue imperial policies.

the early nineteenth century

Imperialism of this kind long predates the nineteenth century in effect if not in name. Since the seventeenth century at the latest, Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden—the great seafaring nations—had all been grabbing overseas colonies, many of which still remained in their possession in 1789. By that time the most vigorous imperial nations were Britain and France, who had already clashed seriously over North America and India in the mid-eighteenth century, and were to continue this rivalry, mainly in the Caribbean, as a by-product of the Napoleonic Wars. The process continued thereafter, with Britain in particular—the major victor from the wars—extending its rule in western and southern Africa, India, and Australasia, and France in North and West Africa and southeast Asia. This was in spite of the fact that the rising ideology of the day in both countries, free market capitalism, painted imperialism as anachronistic and commercially unsound. Europeans at this time (before the 1870s) were not intentional imperialists. It happened, one could say, in spite of them.

The reasons were the expansion of Europe's trade under the impetus of industrialization; the self-confidence of European culture; and the material and technological gap that had opened up recently between European capacities and those of what was seen as the more "backward" world. Typically, the chain of events was this: a European trader sought a market in a "primitive" country; this created instability there; which in turn made force necessary to secure the market; which was then usually backed up with outside—that is, metropolitan—help. The same could occur with settlers seeking new lands to cultivate in the underexploited parts of the world; with missionaries eager to enlighten those in darkness; and with humanitarians aiming to extirpate slavery (both European and indigenous) and also some of the less attractive forms of trade: drugs, arms, and alcohol. Usually in this period governments were reluctant to support their nationals more than was minimally necessary. This accounts for the very limited and scattered extent of most European overseas empires before the 1870s—usually just a few coastal stations—and their dependence on local collaboration to sustain them. The big exceptions were Britain's great colonies of settlement (British North America, Australia, New Zealand, Cape Colony in South Africa), where responsibility could be largely devolved to the emigrants, and British India, an inheritance from those eighteenth-century wars, which even at the time appeared anomalous to many.

As well as these, however, Europe also dominated other countries in ways that could be said to be at least quasi-imperialistic, through diplomacy, for example, ruling through puppets, or by virtue of the advantage that the free market invariably confers on powerful economies over weaker ones. The name given to this is informal imperialism; and it inevitably raises the question of how much domination, and of what kind, is required in order to qualify as imperialism. The mere spread of European trade and culture should almost certainly not be seen in this light. This is because some of it was also genuinely accepted—even demanded—by its recipients, and because many of the cultural values that are sometimes associated with Europe had a much wider provenance. (It is patronizing, even racist, to assume that every "progressive" idea could only have had a "Western" origin.) Two things were happening here. The first was the expansion of European institutions, people, and ideas—or ideas carried on the back of that expansion—into the wider world. The second was the mutation of that expansion into direct or informal imperial rule in some cases. The two were related, but not identical. The causes of each, also, were distinct: general and European in the first case, particular and local in the second. It is not always easy to see where the former shades into the latter, which is one reason why imperialism is so contentious a term. But the effort needs to be made. Otherwise we are left only with the choice of a narrow and misleading definition (formal empire), or a broad, vague, and analytically unhelpful one (Westernization).

the "new imperialism"

From the 1870s onward this difficulty recedes a little, as many more areas of Western penetration in the world became hardened into colonies proper. The chief example of this is the scramble for Africa, which took place in the 1880s and 1890s. Before 1880 Africa was largely empty from a contemporary European perspective: that is, unfilled by what Europeans regarded as nations, and only significantly colonized at its northern and southern tips; or, from an alternative (African) viewpoint, free. By 1900 it was nearly all neatly parceled out among the imperial powers. In fact this exaggerates the changes that took place. Not only was European influence there greater before 1880 than those tiny enclaves on the

coasts indicate; it was also often less so after 1900 than all the solid imperial colorings imply. Some colonies were purely nominal. But this should not detract from the significance of what at the time was dubbed the "new" imperialism: new not in the sense of unprecedented, but fiercer, more deliberate, and competitive.

It also involved more European countries than before. Britain and France were still the leading imperial actors. Britain expanded its empire substantially in West, eastern, and southern Africa, and in the north of the continent too, albeit there (in Egypt) thinly disguised as a kind of protectorate, over a puppet khedive (ruler). Britain also picked up important colonial territories in southeast Asia and the Pacific. Most of these acquisitions were extensions of what earlier had been informal influence, exerted from coastal toeholds. France advanced south from Algeria and Tunisia, taking in most of the Sahara region; expanded its West African territories; and created a new empire—bordering Britain's—in Indochina. The other main expansionary power was Russia in central Asia. Of the remaining older imperial powers, Portugal and the Netherlands mainly consolidated what they already had; Spain lost ground, as it had been doing throughout the century; and Sweden sold its last remaining colony—Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean—to France in 1878. In the 1880s these were joined by five other powers, for most of whom this was a novelty. The exception was the United States—no stranger at all to imperialism on the North American continent, of course—which first joined the overseas colonial game in the Caribbean, central America, and the Pacific (at the expense of the Spaniards, which made it a kind of anti-imperial imperialism) in the 1890s and 1900s. The others were Japan in the Far East; Germany in Africa and the Pacific; Italy in North Africa and Abyssinia; and, most surprisingly, King Leopold II of the Belgians (r. 1865–1909)—the person himself, not his nation—who took over the vast area of the Congo basin in Africa in 1884. It was the entry of these new players that turned the process into a competitive one, which it had not generally been before.

Again, however, the difference should not be exaggerated. The competition was rarely cutthroat. Many feared it would become so: with so many nations in the race now, and the "waste" places of the earth rapidly diminishing under their constant encroachment, the time must come when they would need to battle with one another to achieve their imperial ambitions. One interpretation of World War I sees it in this light. Before then, however, the partition of the wider world was done mainly cooperatively. Crises flared occasionally: between Britain and France at Fashoda in the Sudan in 1898, for example (when France eventually backed down), and between Britain and Germany over southern Africa in 1896 (the "Kruger telegram" affair). There were also some minor skirmishes, especially in West Africa and Southeast Asia. The United States' colonial wars, of course, were with another—albeit decrepit—colonial power. More typical of this stage of Europe's imperial history, however, were the agreements between European governments that parceled out the world among them without needing to resort to war: the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which divided up western and central Africa with almost insulting ease, for example, and gave the Congo to King Leopold II partly to stop the others squabbling over it; the Anglo-German agreement over the eventual fate of the Portuguese African colonies in 1898; the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 over Egypt and North Africa; and the series of deals in the 1890s and 1900s that ensured that every alien power was given what it wanted in China without conflict. This may indicate the marginality of these colonial concerns to most European nations at this time.

This consensus, of course, did not embrace these nations' new colonial subjects. They were not generally asked for their views. Colonial boundary lines in Africa, for example, were notoriously drawn with little regard for what the indigenes regarded as national (that is, ethnic) divisions. Making good the Europeans' colonial claims often required wars with those indigenes: a continuous feature of this (post-1870) period, in Africa, Southeast Asia, China, and elsewhere. In Britain's case they have been characterized as "Queen Victoria's little wars," but they were not so little, of course, to their victims. The reason they appeared so to the conquerors was their vast technological superiority, well described in Hilaire Belloc's cynical (but satirical) lines: "Whatever happens, we have got / The maxim gun, and they have not" (The Modern Traveller, London, 1898, part 6). Even with that, however, things did not always go to plan militarily for the predators. The British were repeatedly repulsed from Afghanistan. A British squadron was overwhelmed by sheer numbers of Zulus at Isandlwana in South Africa in 1879. Italy suffered a humiliating defeat, at the hands of the "natives" at Adowa in 1896, that effectively put paid to its colonial claim to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) until the 1930s. Britain's seizure in 1899–1902 of the republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State—the last pieces (before World War I) of its new southern African empire—was successful, but stretched Britain dangerously, which was probably the main factor persuading Britain to put a brake on colonial expansion thereafter. (Britain's adversaries there were the Afrikaners, or "Boers": of European—mainly Dutch—origin.) "Native" resistance was often vigorous, and could compromise the outcome even when the natives were defeated. (The Afrikaners, for example, were allowed to keep their racist electoral franchise.) Imperialism was not a simple matter of the West's imposing its power and wishes on its victims. Nor, incidentally, did it need to be enforced militarily in most instances, though the threat—or bluff—of force was nearly always there in the background. Empire-building often involved a degree of give and take.

Nonetheless, it was a major feature of the period from 1870 to 1914. Its effect on the world can be seen by comparing maps from both ends of the period, bearing in mind the proviso made already: that maps are often very crude representations of the realities of power. Imperialism was also an important factor in the diplomatic relations between European powers. For example, Germany sought to ease and divert France's pain over the wounds France had suffered during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) by backing French claims to "compensation" in the form of colonial acquisitions outside Europe. And it may have struck deep into European culture and society also.

imperial ideology

By the end of the nineteenth century most major European countries contained parties that positively advocated imperialism, unlike earlier. These parties were headed by prominent politicians like Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) in Britain and Jules Ferry (1832–1893) in France, supported in their turn by a number of publicists, economists, and historians, often organized into bodies like the (British) Royal Empire Society and the Deutsche Kolonialverein. Attempts were made to spread enthusiasm for empire more widely, through colonial

exhibitions, for example, and other forms of propaganda. The impact of this is controversial. There were various manifestations of popular imperialism, for example in the wild celebrations that gripped Britain after the relief of Mafeking during the second Boer War in March 1900, but these may have been superficial, not really indicating any great regard for or pride in the empire itself. The propagandists were certainly not satisfied. One of the great obstacles to popular imperialism, as they saw it, was the rise of socialism in Europe almost exactly contemporaneously. For their part many socialists believed that imperialism was intended mainly as a cynical device to counter the latter's appeal.

It also had, however, a rationale of its own; or rather, several, for "imperialism" was by no means a homogeneous or consistent ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, imperialists could be nationalists or internationalists, authoritarians or liberals, capitalists or anticapitalists, and racists or egalitarians—in theory, at any rate. This goes far to explain the breadth of imperialism's appeal among intellectuals. But it had at least two common underlying characteristics. The first was a belief in the essential superiority of European civilization over other forms, usually seen in terms of "progress": that is, Europe (and America) represented the latest stage of humanity's "advance." This belief was natural for a continent that had itself self-evidently progressed or at least changed in so many ways in recent years, by contrast with what seemed to be the inertia of other cultures. It had two possible riders. One was to justify Europe's ruling other peoples, if those peoples were felt to be incapable of progressing to the same extent. That was if you were a racist. Alternatively, however, if you believed that Europe was merely "ahead" of other peoples along a road that was common to all of them, then it qualified Europe for showing those other peoples the way. Imperialism was justified as tutelage. That was its best, or at least its best-intentioned, side.

The other feature common to most imperialist ideologies arose out of a reading of the power politics of the time. Polities were getting bigger. The United States, Russia, and Germany were the chief contemporary examples. Many Europeans predicted these rising nations' domination of the world in the near future. (Some looked beyond that, and warned of the rise of Islam and China too.) Small states had no chance against powers like these; or, for some socialists, against the rising power of international capitalism, to which they were equally vulnerable. The only way to avoid being dominated was to become a dominating power yourself, with the proviso—which all empires at least claimed—that your domination would be better both for your own nation and for those you dominated than others' dominations might be. In the coming struggle for national survival in the world that many imperialists believed was inevitable—Social Darwinism had an obvious influence here—imperial expansion was the only way forward.

Imperialism was also commonly (but not universally) associated with other attitudes, most of them regarded as reactionary in the discourse of the time. Racism is one that has been mentioned already. There is no necessary and inevitable connection between these two ideologies: one could be an imperialist without being a strict racist, and obviously vice versa; but that connection could be difficult to avoid, especially in situations where the "native" subjects rejected the "enlightenment" offered them, as had happened during the Indian "Mutiny" (1857–1858), which was easier or more comfortable to explain in terms of racial inferiority. Another reactionary doctrine widely associated with imperialism was protectionism. This arose out of the defensive aspect of the "survival of the fittest" scenario. Nations and empires had to be self-sufficient. Most imperialists were therefore trade protectionists, and with some success so far as their nation's fiscal policies were concerned, although not in Britain's case before 1914. They were also notably "masculinist"—it required male strength to win and sustain an empire—and antiliberal, for much the same reason. Few leading imperialists, for example, were democrats. Imperialism therefore was usually, though not invariably, associated with the political Right.

It also however made some of the Right think again about their traditional conservative stances on domestic matters, and particularly social welfare, which became an issue for many of them in the light of the imperial struggles that seemed to be looming. "The Empire," wrote one (British) imperialist, "will not be maintained by a nation of outpatients." In Britain's case the problem was "physical deterioration" (as it was perceived); in France's the low birth rate; in Germany's the vulnerability of discontented workers to the sirens of socialism. Imperial nations needed healthy, vigorous, and loyal populaces to sustain themselves as such. It was this that turned many imperialists into social reformers, allying them with more progressive trends in their respective polities. For "genuine" socialists this merely confirmed their

suspicions that the main object of imperialism was to take the wind out of their sails. For this and other reasons, anti-imperialism was probably as powerful an ideology throughout Europe as imperialism was, among those who were susceptible to any ideology at all.


That explanation—imperialism as a tool of domestic reaction—was one of a number that were around at the time and have proliferated since. It went hand in hand with another similarly critical one, which saw imperialism as a means of bypassing some of the difficulties the capitalist system seemed to be facing just then, so working to defuse socialism in another way. The argument was this: capitalism was overproducing—that is, turning out more products than could find markets domestically, which caused trade depressions, and might even lead it to collapse, to the advantage of the socialists, if additional markets could not be found elsewhere. An apocalyptic expression of this was the following alleged statement by Cecil Rhodes, the great British capitalist-imperialist, in the 1890s:

In order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists. (quoted in Semmel, p. 16)

Others felt the same; for the French statesman Jules Ferry colonies were a "safety-valve" for the "superabundance of capital invested in industry" (quoted in Langer, p. 287); for the German economist Friedrich Fabri (1824–1891) they were "a matter of life and death," no less (quoted in Townsend, p. 80). There is no doubt that contemporaries conceived the colonies in this way. This was even before the argument became harnessed to a left-wing critique of empire at the hands of John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940)—whose Imperialism: A Study (1902) attributed it to certain accidental malfunctions in the capitalist system: low wages, reducing the home market, and the disproportionate and malign influence of certain sectional interests—and of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), whose Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) saw the former as rooted in the essence of the latter, and especially in what he called "finance" (or investment) capitalism. For years the "capitalist theory of imperialism" held the stage so far as explanatory models for the phenomenon were concerned. It is what mainly contributed to imperialism's poor image for much of the later twentieth century, when a mere sniff of "mercenary motives" was sufficient to damn any enterprise.

In the later nineteenth century there was much less of this kind of prejudice against capitalist enterprise, even in colonial situations, where it was generally accepted as a means to benefit both sides. It is for this reason that economic motives were rarely hidden then, and indeed—it has often been suggested—may have been exaggerated in order to win over public opinion for colonial projects that had other motives behind them or that were economically highly unsound, as many of them turned out to be. There are a number of good arguments against the "capitalist theory," or at any rate a too rigid and deterministic version of it. One is that the colonies acquired by the European powers during their "capitalist imperialist" period were in fact nearly all marginal to the economies of the powers. (Of course this might not matter if Europeans expected otherwise.) Another is that it is difficult to link these motives directly with the details of most of the various acquisitions. Many of the latter are much more rationally explained on other—often local—grounds. A third is that most capitalists were in fact not particularly imperially minded: did not much care, that is, which country "ruled" their markets, so long as they were safe. A fourth may be that capitalism is still a going concern. Lenin predicted that it was only imperialism that was keeping it alive. Now that imperialism has gone, capitalism should have collapsed. That is, if imperialism is really regarded as a thing of the past, and not something that in fact survived formal "decolonization"—via U.S. foreign policy, for example, or what in the early-twenty-first century is called "globalization." It is considerations like this that make it impossible to dismiss "capitalist" explanations entirely. But there are alternative possibilities.

So far as personal "motives" are concerned, others certainly played a part. No one would claim that every humanitarian who lobbied for European annexation of a country in order to facilitate Christian missionary work, for example, or for the eradication of Arab slavery, was really a capitalist in disguise, or even necessarily the ally of one. In relation to France's north African acquisitions, individual military ambitions—often in defiance of metropolitan orders—were often crucial. We have seen how European diplomatic considerations could be important, in the case of Germany in the 1880s. One of the favorite explanations for Britain's concentration on Egypt and South Africa in the 1880s and 1890s is a "strategic" one: to safeguard Britain's naval routes (through the Suez Canal and around the Cape) to India and the further East. Several European statesmen saw colonies as a mark of prestige: "There has never been a great power without great colonies," as one Frenchman wrote (quoted in Brunschwig, Mythes, p. 24; author's translation). When France took Tunis in 1881, Léon-Michel Gambetta (1838–1882) is reputed to have run around Paris shouting, "France is becoming a great nation again!" (ibid., p. 55). Even in Britain, whose imperial status looked secure, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) warned in 1872 of the damage that would be done to England's prestige if it ever let it go: "The issue … is whether you will be content to be a comfortable England, modelled and moulded upon Continental principles and meeting in due course an inevitable fate, or whether you will be a great country, an Imperial country, a country where your sons … command the respect of the world" (quoted in Faber, p. 64). Liberals of the time regarded that as highly reactionary. Perhaps it was; one other general theory of imperialism, associated with the Austrian sociologist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950), attributes it to an atavistic reversion to the "aristocratic" values of the past. Then there were those who felt Europe had a destiny to rule others, for the good of "civilization." "We happen to be the best people in the world," said Rhodes, again, "with the highest ideals of decency and justice, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity" (quoted in Faber, p. 64). Coming from Rhodes, these words may seem tainted by "mercenariness." But the same cannot necessarily be said of all these

"idealistic" (as opposed to material) motives. Material considerations may have been the leading ones; or have set the invisible limits within which other factors might operate. That, however, is a question for theorists. The empirical evidence does not settle it on its own.

It may be that the true explanation for the distinctive imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—not of the general dispersal of Europeans, their goods and ideas, that is, but of the shift from that to formal colonial annexation and rule—is both more accidental and more trivial than the grand theories of the Leninists and the Schumpeterians would suggest. Extraneous events happening around the 1870s had much to do with it. These included the trade depressions of the 1870s to 1890s, mild by later standards but a shock after the much sunnier 1850s and 1860s, when capitalism had seemed to have straightened out its initial systemic glitches; the unifications of Germany and Italy, raising them for the first time to positions where they could contemplate colonial expansion, and provoking France and Russia to redouble their own expansions; and the culmination of all those technological advances—especially in transport, weaponry, and medicine—that widened, to its maximum, the power differential between Europe and most of the rest of the world. That differential was vital. It meant that it was comparatively easy now for Europe to dominate other countries—though by no means certain, as has been shown—as well as even more likely than before that she should regard herself as "superior" to them. This in itself, however, did not guarantee an imperialist outcome. Even in the 1880s and 1890s most European governments and peoples were more wary of new overseas commitments than the actual events of this period would seem to imply. No one had ever proved that they were really worth the candle, certainly economically.

Three factors prompted the various "scrambles" of this period. The first was the new competition for territory, released by the political events of the 1860s and 1870s, and crowding the colonial scene for the older imperial powers. The second was the very apparent decline of the ideal of "free trade," which had been meant to make colonies irrelevant—if you could trade with a country anyway it should not matter whether you ruled it or not—but whose undermining by the new "protectionists" inevitably opened up the question again. At the very least countries might need to be taken in hand in order to ensure that they remained "free trade": which was why King Leopold II was given the Congo, on that very condition; and why it was named—in a way that came to seem somewhat incongruous later—the "Congo Free State." The third was the discovery by many of the more benevolent of the older established imperialists that their benevolence was not always welcomed by the natives as it should have been (in view of the self-evident benefits and truths that they were trying to disseminate), and was sometimes resisted forcibly; which persuaded them of the necessity of formal control where informal influence had sufficed earlier. This gave rise to what are called "peripheral" reasons for colonial intervention, different in each set of circumstances, which seems to make "general" theories of imperialism all the more implausible: at least, to explain this particular phase of the phenomenon.

The causes of imperialism are still controversial. It partly depends on one's definition of the term. There were general factors at work. The energies released by the Industrial Revolution contributed to the wide dispersal of Europeans overseas during the nineteenth century. The European Enlightenment nurtured attitudes of superiority. If dispersal and superiority are sufficient on their own to denote "imperialism," then its explanation can be sought there. That kind of "imperialism," however, did not need to transmute into more formal—or even "informal"—kinds. The reasons for that may be more vague, uncertain, particular, and mixed. They will also depend on one's ideological disposition: to rate material above "idealistic" factors, for example; or vice versa; or to rate "culture" ahead of either. The jury is still out on this.


The legacy of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imperialism is even more of an analytical minefield than the question of its causes. The reasons for this are threefold. The first is a general historical one: effects are always the most difficult things in history to divine. They involve considerations of alternative scenarios—what would India have been like without the raj? and so on—which can never be more than speculative. Second, on this particular issue: people have strong feelings about it, often unrelated—or only selectively related—to the "facts." Imperialism became a term of abuse on the political Left in the early twentieth century, and among Americans for different reasons (they would have to be, in view of the United States' own strong imperialist tradition), and remains so for probably the majority of people in the early twenty-first century. Third, there is the question of semantics, yet again. It depends what is meant by imperialism. In its broadest sense—Western expansion—it clearly had an immense impact: though it is difficult to be sure that some societies, at least, would not have "progressed" in roughly similar directions indigenously, and a matter of opinion whether those directions were on balance admirable or regrettable. There is also the question whether "Westernization" inevitably involves Western domination, which is surely the minimal prerequisite for a truly "imperialist" relationship.

Defenders of imperialism argued (some still do) that it was only through such domination that "civilized" institutions and practices could be introduced to "backward" societies. The answers to that are, firstly, that "imperialist" standards of "civilization," even at their best-intentioned, were often culture-based and ideologically driven (vide Christianity and the insistence of free markets); secondly, that imperial practice did not always meet the often exacting standards of the theories behind it; and thirdly, that imperial control might not be as effective a way of spreading these values as more subtle kinds of influence. "I know of no instance in history," wrote Alfred Lyall in 1882, "of a nation being educated by another nation into self-government and independence; every nation has fought its way up in the world as the English have done" (quoted in Owen, p. 169). In those cases where countries did emerge from periods of British rule into democracy—the United States and India are the greatest examples—it is debatable whether that was in obedience to or in reaction against their imperial masters. Most former colonies did not make that happy transition. Again, that may not necessarily have been the imperialists' fault, though they are often blamed for it, still.

The contingent evils of imperialism are well known. Wars against "natives" have been mentioned already. Some of those turned into bloody massacres: like the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898. Other atrocities included Britain's "Opium Wars" with China in the middle of the nineteenth century; Germany's massacre of the Hereros of South-West Africa in the early 1900s; Leopold II's cruel exploitation of his Congo State in the 1890s and 1900s, despite all his idealistic professions; and—among more "passive" outrages—the terrible Indian famines that Britain did little to prevent or relieve. For Europe itself imperialism may have been a source of profit—that is controversial, depending on what we wish to list in the "expenditure" column—and probably boosted political reaction, in particular militarism and racism, though to what extent is unclear.

On the other side of the equation were countless acts of self-sacrifice and paternalistic altruism by individual colonial rulers who were not mainly motivated by racial prejudice and greed. The problem here, however, was that their altruism could be misdirected. Benevolence does not always guarantee beneficent results. Even the best imperial intentions could be manipulated by special material interests and distorted by cultural prejudices. Imperialism also produces atrocities almost inevitably, and provokes resistance. The problem, of course, is that the absence of imperialism can also have unfortunate effects: leaving peoples vulnerable to their own tyrants, for example, or to the "informal" tyranny that it is arguable that the free market (or "globalization") represents. It was for this reason that many of the leading imperial critics of the early twentieth century, among them Hobson, advocated not its abolition, but its internationalization: a multinational body to share the responsibility of "raising" "uncivilized" peoples and protecting them from predators. Eventually that materialized in the post–World War I League of Nations "mandates" system, making new colonial rulers answerable to the international community, not just themselves. But in 1914 that was still just a dream.

See alsoAfrica; Boer War; Caribbean; Colonialism; Colonies; Egypt; Fashoda Affair; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Leopold II; Socialism.


Bayly, Christopher A. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830. New York, 1989.

Brunschwig, Henri. Mythes et réalités de l'imperialisme colonial français, 1871–1914. Paris, 1960. Translated by William Granville Brown as French Colonialism, 1871–1914: Myths and Realities. New York, 1966.

Cain, Peter, and Tony Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688–2000. 2 vols. New York, 1993.

Etherington, Norman. Theories of Imperialism: War, Conquest, and Capital. Totowa, N.J., 1984.

Faber, Richard. The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims. London, 1966.

Fieldhouse, David K. Economics and Empire, 1830–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.

——. Colonialism, 1870–1945: An Introduction. New York, 1981.

Hobson, John Atkinson. Imperialism: A Study. London, 1902. The classic study.

Hyam, Ronald. Britain's Imperial Century, 1815–1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion. 3rd ed. New York, 2002.

Kiernan, Victor G. European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, 1815–1960. Leicester, U.K., 1982.

Langer, William L. European Alliances and Alignments, 1871–1890. New York, 1931. Still the best diplomatic history of imperialism.

MacKenzie, John. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960. Dover, N.H., 1984.

Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Theories of Imperialism. Chicago, 1982.

Owen, Roger. Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul. New York, 2004.

Porter, Andrew. European Imperialism, 1860–1914. London, 1994. The best short introduction.

Porter, Bernard. The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850–2004. 4th ed. New York, 2004.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.

Semmel, Bernard. Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895–1914. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

Townsend, Mary E. The Rise and Fall of Germany's Colonial Empire, 1884–1918. New York, 1930.

Wesseling, H. L. Imperialism and Colonialism: Essays on the History of European Expansion. Westport, Conn., 1997.

Bernard Porter


views updated May 18 2018


IMPERIALISM. Americans have long thought of themselves as an "anti-imperial" people. The nation was, after all, founded in revolt against the British Empire. In the twentieth century, the rhetoric of national "selfdetermination" pervaded American discussions of foreign affairs. From Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson, the United States defined itself in opposition to the imperialism of other empires.

Imperialism, in this American usage, refers to the domination of another society against the expressed will of its people. Imperialism can be both formal and informal. In the case of formal empire—as in the British rule over the thirteen American colonies during the eighteenth century—a powerful foreign state manages the day-to-day political, social, and economic affairs in another land. Informal empire, in contrast, refers to a more indirect arrangement, whereby a foreign state works through local intermediaries to manage a distant society. In early nineteenth-century India, for example, British authorities negotiated favorable trade arrangements with native monarchs rather than bear the heavy costs of direct imperial control.

Close attention to these two kinds of imperialism has led many scholars to conclude that, despite popular assumptions, imperialism as a general term applies to American history. In particular, the years after the Civil War show abundant evidence of Americans expanding their economic, political, military, and cultural control over foreign societies. The post-1865 period is distinguished from previous decades, when the young Republic was both struggling for its survival and expanding over contiguous territory that it rapidly incorporated into the constitutional structures of the United States. Imperialism implies something different from continental expansion. It refers to the permanent subordination of distant societies, rather than their reorganization as states of equal standing in a single nation. America extended its federalist structure of governance across the North American continent before the Civil War. After that watershed, a powerful United States established areas of domination in distant lands, whose people were not allowed equal representation in governance. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the United States had a large informal empire and a smaller but still significant formal empire as well.

From the Civil War to the Twentieth Century

William Henry Seward, secretary of state during and immediately after the Civil War, recognized that the United States needed an overseas empire for its future peace and prosperity. The wounds of the bloody North-South conflict would heal, he believed, only with the promise of overseas benefits for all sections of the country. Informal U.S. expansion into foreign markets—especially in Asia and the Caribbean—provided farmers and industrialists with access to consumers and resources. At a time when the U.S. economy had begun to employ factory manufacturing, mechanized agriculture, and railroad transportation, large overseas outlets became necessary for prosperity. Americans were dependent on assured access to international markets, Seward believed, and this required expansion across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Seward began by building a "highway" to Asia. This included annexation of the Brooks Islands in 1867 (renamed the Midway Islands in 1903). The secretary of state also negotiated a treaty guaranteeing American businesses access to the island kingdom of Hawaii. The U.S. Senate eventually approved this treaty in 1875. Seward expected that the Brooks Islands and Hawaii would serve as important stepping-stones for American influence in the lucrative markets of China and Japan.

When the United States encountered resistance to its post–Civil War expansion in Asia, the government employed diplomatic and military pressures. In 1866, after the Japanese government closed itself to foreign trade, the United States joined other imperial powers—the British, the French, and the Dutch—in forcing Western access to the island nation over the objections of native interests. Seward dispatched a warship, the U.S.S. Wyoming, to join in naval exercises off the Japanese coast.

In China, the largest and most promising market, Seward used diplomacy instead of explicit force. According to the Burlingame Treaty, signed in September 1868, the Chinese government gave the United States trading access to designated coastal areas, with the additional right to build railroads and telegraphs facilitating penetration of the hinterland. In return, the United States allowed thousands of Chinese laborers to migrate across the Pacific. This arrangement helped to relieve China's overpopulation difficulties, and it provided American companies—particularly on the West Coast—with a large pool of low-wage workers. The U.S. government worked with the Chinese emperor to guarantee a market for the export of American products and the import of cheap labor.

Seward's imperialism set the stage for succeeding secretaries of state, but his policies inspired strong domestic resistance. By the time he left office in 1869, Seward had built an American overseas empire that included formal possessions, including the Brooks Islands and Alaska (1867), as well as larger informal areas of influence, which included Hawaii, Japan, and, most important of all, China. Many Americans expressed discomfort with this evidence of imperialism, including Republican Senator Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Seward's other ambitious plans—including acquisition of the Danish West Indies (the U.S. Virgin Islands) and the construction of an isthmian canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a sliver of Colombia—died at the hands of anti-imperialists on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Despite these setbacks, Seward and his successors recognized the overriding imperialist trend in American foreign policy at the time. In addition to the economic advantages derived from overseas expansion, a series of internal social and cultural pressures pushed the United States to become more involved in managing distant societies. Religious belief—in particular a desire to spread Christian "civilization"—had motivated Western settlement across the North American continent during the period of manifest destiny, before the Civil War. Now these same urges inspired overseas proselytism. Ministers like Josiah Strong of the Home Missionary Society called upon thousands of their followers to establish churches and schools throughout China and other foreign countries. Christian missionaries would not only save less privileged souls, they would also display the profound righteousness of American society. As was the case with Britain and many other imperial powers in the nineteenth century, the United States defined its national identity by asserting superiority over—and a duty to convert—"Oriental" heathens.

American imperialism, in this sense, was part of a much larger international competition. Britain, France, and Russia—and by the last decades of the nineteenth century, Germany and Japan—were all competing for in-fluence in Asia, Africa, and other "open" spaces for expansion. American leaders felt they had to adopt imperialistic policies of their own. Otherwise, the United States risked permanent exclusion from future opportunities abroad. Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900 codified this argument, proclaiming that the United States would assert its presence in China and other countries to make sure that other imperialist powers did not close off American access. As a self-conscious great power with a civilizing mission and a growing dependence on foreign markets, the United States needed its own empire—preferably informal. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner's influential 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," captured this sense that the proving ground for American society was no longer on the North American continent, but now overseas.

One could not build an empire—even an informal one—without an adequate military. After an initial decade of demobilization after the Civil War, the United States embarked upon a period of extensive naval construction in the late nineteenth century. Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the newly created Naval War College, outlined a new military doctrine for American imperialism in his widely read lectures, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. First published in 1890, Mahan's text mined the history of the Roman and British empires to show that a large trading state could ensure its wealth and security by asserting dominance of the sea. A large battleship navy, in control of important strategic waterways and coaling stations across the globe, would guarantee the flow of commerce. It would also allow for the United States to influence foreign societies, transporting concentrated forces across great distances.

Largely as a consequence of Mahan's influence, the U.S. naval fleet grew consistently between 1890 and 1914. More ships created new opportunities for force projection. New overseas naval interests, in turn, justified ever larger estimates of strategic necessities. By 1898, the U.S. Navy had become both an advocate and a tool of American imperialism.

The United States used its growing naval power to force the declining Spanish empire out of Cuba and the Philippines. In both areas, America became the new imperial power. In 1901, the United States—now in formal control of Cuba—forced the native government of the island to include in its constitution a series of stipulations known as the Platt Amendment (named for Senator Orville Platt, a Republican from Connecticut). These included assurances of American political and economic domination. The U.S. Navy acquired possession of a major facility on the island, Guantánamo Naval Base. Washington also asserted the future right to intervene militarily in Cuba if U.S. interests were jeopardized. After granting the island nominal independence in 1902, the United States did indeed send an "army of pacification" to the island in 1906 for the purpose of repressing anti-American groups. The United States practiced a combination of informal and formal imperialism in Cuba.

In the case of the Philippines, the United States initially went to war with Spain in 1898 for the purpose of acquiring an informal naval coaling station. Native resistance to U.S. interests and a growing recognition in Washington that the archipelago would serve as an ideal point of embarkation for trade with the Chinese mainland led President William McKinley to declare the Philippines a permanent U.S. colony on 21 December 1898. America fought a bloody forty-one-month war to secure possession of the entire archipelago. During this Philippine Insurrection, the United States created an occupation army that waged total war on local resistance. Forty-two hundred Americans died in battle for possession of this colony. As many as twenty thousand Filipino insurgents also died. As never before, the United States had established direct control over a foreign society—seven thousand miles from North America—through brute force. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the evidence of American imperialism was unmistakable.

Liberal Imperialism

During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States was both an advocate of democracy and a practitioner of imperialism. The two are not necessarily contradictory. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson both believed they had an obligation to spread American ideas and interests across the globe. As a new world power, the United States had an apparent opportunity to remake the international system in a way that would eliminate the old ravages of war and corrupt alliances. Roosevelt and Wilson sought to replace militaristic aristocracies with governments that promised economic development and, eventually, democracy. International change of this variety would, they assumed, best serve America's long-term interests.

In the short run, however, the "new diplomacy" of Roosevelt and Wilson required more extensive American imperialism. When societies refused to follow the alleged tide of "modern" economic development and democracy symbolized by the United States, Washington felt an urge to intervene. On a number of occasions, U.S. leaders went so far as to force societies to be "free" on American terms. This was the rationale behind a series of early twentieth-century U.S. interventions in the Western Hemisphere that included, among others, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In each case, the United States asserted strategic and economic interests, and a long-term commitment to the betterment of the society under Washington's control. When U.S. military forces left their foreign areas of occupation, the threat of their redeployment served to intimidate those who wished to challenge U.S. influence.

In Europe and Asia, the United States pursued a consistent policy of informal imperialism during the first decades of the twentieth century. Contrary to the image of American diplomatic isolation before and after World War I, U.S. businesses worked with Washington's explicit—though often "unofficial"—support to build new overseas markets during this period. Investment firms like J. P. Morgan and Company lent large sums to countries such as Great Britain and France, forcing them to allow more American influence in the daily workings of their economies. Industrial concerns like Standard Oil, Singer Sewing Company, and International Harvester became more active in controlling natural resources overseas and marketing their products to foreign consumers. Perhaps most significant of all, intellectual and charitable groups like the Carnegie Council and the Rockefeller Foundation began to advise leaders in Europe, Asia, and Latin America on how they could make their societies and economies look more like that of the United States. Their seemingly "objective" counsels encouraged private property concentration, natural resource extraction, and increased trade—all factors that served to increase the influence of American firms.

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascism restricted much of the international commerce and communication that had flourished in the first decades of the century. These conditions, however, only heightened the pressures for informal American imperialism. Fearful that economic and political forces—especially in Germany—were moving against trade, economic development, and democracy, the U.S. government continued to encourage the activities of American companies and advisory groups abroad.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in particular, sponsored the overseas marketing of Hollywood-produced films. Movies helped to proselytize the individual freedoms and personal prosperity that Americans believed were essential for a peaceful, liberal world. Hollywood helped nurture foreign consumers who would soon want to purchase the American-made automobiles and other products glorified on the silver screen. Most significant of all, policymakers like Roosevelt believed that movie exports would help inspire positive views of the United States in foreign societies. The president even thought this might work with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—an avid consumer of American movies. Roosevelt hoped that Hollywood depictions of Soviet-American friend-ship would help solidify the two nations in their fight against Nazi fascism.

World War II and the Cold War

U.S. participation in World War II formalized America's liberal imperialism of the prior decades. As part of the Atlantic Charter—negotiated when Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in secret between 9 and 12 August 1941—the United States proclaimed that the war against fascism would end with a "permanent system of general security" that would embrace national self-determination, free trade, and disarmament. Citizens of foreign countries would benefit from "improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security" when they restructured their societies to look like the United States. The Atlantic Charter laid out an agenda for total war against the large standing armies, state-run economies, and dictatorial governments that characterized fascist regimes. This is what one scholar calls the "American way of war." Between 1941 and 1945, the United States deployed unprecedented military force—including two atomic bombs—to annihilate its most direct challengers in Asia and Europe. American commitments to free trade, economic development, and democracy required the unconditional surrender of Japanese, German, and Italian fascists. U.S. leaders and citizens not only asserted that their nation was the necessary "arsenal of democracy," they also proclaimed that they would remake the world after the horrors of war and genocide. The defeat of fascism would christen the "American Century," when the United States would play the unabashed role of liberal imperialist, planting the seeds of American-style economic growth and democracy across the globe.

The United States undertook this task with extraordinary resolve as soon as World War II came to a close in 1945. In the western half of Germany and the European continent, American policymakers rebuilt wardevastated societies. The Economic Recovery Program of 1947 (also known as the Marshall Plan, after Secretary of State George Marshall) provided a staggering $13 billion of U.S. aid to feed starving people, reorganize industry, and jump-start economic production. Instead of the reparations and loans that weighed down European economies after World War I, the United States used the Marshall Plan to foster postwar stability, prosperity, and integration in Europe. With their economies organized along liberal capitalist lines, the west European countries developed favorable markets for American exports only a few years after the end of World War II.

In Japan and the western half of Germany, America's liberal imperialism was formal and incredibly successful. In both societies, U.S. officials helped to write new constitutions. The Japanese national charter of 1946 prohibited militarism and state control over the economy. It gave Japanese women the right to vote for the first time, promoted noncommunist labor unions, encouraged free public expression, and created new opportunities for American-style schooling. The new German "Basic Law," promulgated in 1949, similarly outlawed fascism and ensured individual rights, personal property ownership, and free elections. In both societies, the United States worked with a series of local politicians to uproot authoritarian traditions and impose liberal democracy. American officials sought to prevent future war, improve the lives of foreign citizens, and ensure U.S. strategic and economic interests. These goals were not incompatible; in fact, they reflected a formalization of American assumptions dating back to 1865.

The Soviet Union objected to America's liberal imperialism for obvious reasons. Joseph Stalin and his successors recognized that U.S. expansion in Europe and Asia prohibited the spread of communist ideals. Instead of the worker rights and economic equality championed by the Soviet Union—in words, if not in practice—American influence privileged personal liberties and individual wealth accumulation. The conflict between America's liberal democratic vision and the Soviet Union's communist alternative created an environment of competing imperialisms, which contemporaries called the "Cold War."

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet criticisms of U.S. imperialism gained some popular support in Asian, African, and Latin American societies struggling for independence against inherited European and American domination. This was most evident in Indochina. Despite its anticolonial inclinations, U.S. leaders supported French colonialism in this region of Southeast Asia after World War II. In the eyes of U.S. policymakers, national independence for Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian citizens threatened to undermine the stability and security of the region. Nationalist governments would allegedly threaten trade and economic development. Most significantly, American leaders feared that newly independent governments would fall under the influence of Soviet and, after 1949, Chinese communism. Liberal imperialism appeared necessary to contain communist expansion and prepare "underdeveloped" societies for eventual independence.

When Vietnamese nationalists—aided, as Washington predicted, by China and the Soviet Union—forced the French out of Indochina in 1954, the United States took over as a formal imperialist in the region. By the end of 1965, U.S. soldiers were fighting an extensive ground, sea, and air war against Vietnamese nationalists. Before the last U.S. troops withdrew from the region in 1975, hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of peasants had died or suffered dislocation as a consequence of American military activities. In addition, 58,193 U.S. soldiers perished in this war.

The Vietnam War illustrated the extended brutality of American imperialism during the Cold War. Longstanding economic and political impulses had combined with militant anticommunism to devastate much of Southeast Asia. Observers in countries around the world—including the United States—condemned American foreign policy for undermining the liberal purposes that it claimed to serve. The global revolt witnessed in 1968 on city streets across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America was an international reaction against American imperialism.

After Vietnam and to the Twenty-First Century

American foreign policy was never the same after the Vietnam War. Aware of the resistance that the formal elements of American imperialism had inspired, policymakers returned to more informal mechanisms for asserting influence abroad. Economic globalization and human rights advocacy took center stage, along with continued anticommunism. The promise of American-style prosperity and individual rights—championed by politicians, businesspeople, and Hollywood writers—triumphed over the gray authoritarianism of communist regimes. By 1991, societies across the globe rushed to attract American investment and aid. Citizens sought out American cultural exports—including McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Michael Jordan.

America's informal imperialism in the late twentieth century was remarkably effective. It did, however, inspire serious resistance. Instead of adopting communist slogans, as they had in the 1950s and 1960s, opponents of U.S. influence after 1991 turned largely to religion. Fundamentalisms of many varieties—Christian, Jewish, and Islamic—arose to challenge the decadence and hypocrisy of American liberal democracy. They condemned the United States for undermining traditional sources of authority and morality in foreign societies. They recognized that the free trade, economic development, and popular elections advocated by the United States would destroy many local hierarchies.

International terrorism—symbolized most frighteningly by the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—emerged, in part, as a reaction to a long history of formal and informal American imperialism. This observation does not, in any way, justify the abhorrent terrorist activities. American imperialism has produced both positive and negative outcomes, as the contrast between post–World War II Japan and Vietnam makes clear. Nonetheless, the extraordinary overseas influence of the United States, dating back to 1865, has inspired violent resistance. Americans probably will not abandon their liberal imperialist assumptions in the twenty-first century, but they will surely develop new strategies for isolating and defeating foreign challengers.


Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985. A superb comparative study that analyzes the politics and foreign policy of early twentieth-century America.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. The best analysis of the sources and implications of America's anticommunist containment policy during the Cold War.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1997. A provocative analysis of how American liberal imperialism contributed to the Vietnam War.

Hahn, Peter L., and Mary Ann Heiss, eds. Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World since 1945. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001. A useful survey of American imperialism in the "third world" during the Cold War.

Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947–1952. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A penetrating account of how the Marshall Plan reconstructed Western Europe on America's model.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A stimulating account of how ideas about liberty, race, and revolution shaped American imperialism.

Iriye, Akira, ed. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: The Globalizing of America, 1913–1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A compelling discussion of Americanization in the first half of the twentieth century.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. An excellent account of Wilson's liberal approach to foreign policy.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. A classic history of American imperialism between the Civil War and the War of 1898.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. A rich account of how American values and fears of Soviet power drove foreign policy in the early Cold War.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1990. A provocative account of American imperialism in Asia at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy since 1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A compelling account of Wilson's influence on American imperialism in the twentieth century.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. A thoughtful account of America's cultural and economic imperialism between the two world wars.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. A provocative analysis of American liberal imperialism.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. A compelling analysis of America's imperialistic approach to war.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Norton, 1988. Originally published in 1959 and one of the most important works on the history of American foreign relations—a penetrating discussion of economics, ideas, and imperialism.


See alsoAnti-Imperialists ; China, Relations with ; Cuba, Relations with ; Hawaii ; Intervention ; Japan, Relations with ; Philippines ; Spanish-American War ; Vietnam War ; andvol. 9:Anti-Imperialist League Platform .


views updated May 17 2018


The various senses of imperialism require definition and an outline of their historical and theoretical components. According to The Oxford Universal Dictionary the word "imperial" comes from the Latin imperium, meaning "pertaining to an empire or emperor"; it defines imperialism as "the rule of an emperor, especially when despotic" or "the principle or spirit of empire." Other dictionaries define imperialism as "the policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations," or "the policy of seeking to extend the power, dominion, or territories of a nation." The historian Tony Smith defines imperialism as "the effective domination by a relatively strong state over a weaker people whom it does not control as it does its home population, or the effort to secure such domination" (The Pattern of Imperialism, p. 6). He notes that the imperial power commonly permits the local population some areas of control. Any of these definitions allows for formal and informal imperialism.

The term imperialism has at heart subordination and the clash of sovereignty. In formal imperialism, the dominant power assumes sovereignty over the subject people in the form of annexation, colonialism, or an avowed protectorate. In informal imperialism, the dominant power asserts control over the sovereignty of subject peoples through various forms of domination (all of which carry the implied threat of force or other forms of harm). For example, the Monroe Doctrine was a policy that restricted the sovereignty of the Latin American nations because it denied them (without their consent) sovereignty over their territory (they could not alienate it) and over their political systems (they could not choose a form unacceptable to the United States). Imperialism was the product of the quest for glory, a higher purpose (God, the nation, civilization, or destiny), gold and wealth, and the strategic need for ports, outposts, and resources to achieve the first three objectives (or to protect early successes in achieving them).


World systems theory, associated with American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein but based upon the work of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, defines the relationships of states within the world economy as metropole (core), semiperiphery, and periphery. A metropole power is defined, in part, by its urge to incorporate areas beyond its sovereignty into its political economy in order to enlarge the pool of land, labor, and capital from which its entrepreneurs accumulate profit. A metropole state not only controls the factors of domestic production and distribution, but also acquires the political power and technology to control foreign factors of production and distribution in the periphery and semiperiphery. Metropoles are constantly in a state of competition with each other as they strain to obtain hegemony within the world economy. A semiperiphery state functions both as exploited and exploiter in the world economy. Metropoles and semiperiphery states exploit areas of the periphery (such as Central America), which lack some factors of production or are unable to control them. Metropole states preserve their political stability and improve the lifestyle and capital accumulation of their working and entrepreneurial classes in part by manipulating the periphery. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are three countries that acquired semi-peripheral status in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries. They acquired considerable control over land and labor, and some capacity to distribute the imports and exports necessary for their economies. But they are still dependent upon foreign capital to a considerable extent and also rely upon foreign communications and transportation to an appreciable degree.

The explorers were the first foreign intruders into New World society. While the Viking raiding parties and the French and British fishermen were transitory, the adventurers and captains in the service of the Spanish, British, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Swedish, Danish crowns, and Italian states marked the New World societies permanently with maps, ports, and settlements. The outward thrust of Europe was a response to its commercial expansion and its desire to reach the East more directly. Spanish experience with several centuries of reconquest of its peninsula from the Moors influenced its conquistadors; the mental and physical activity of many Spanish noble families had been directed toward conquest for generations. The Portuguese and the Dutch stressed trade more than settlement; the Spanish did a bit of both, while the British were heavily involved in both. Latin America was exploited for land, labor, and communication routes. The chief products of export under the Spanish and Portuguese were gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, cotton, hides, dyes and dyewoods, and fruit.

The European mercantilists of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries overran the whole New World. In addition to the Spanish Empire, which stretched from the Great Plains to Cape Horn, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Russian, Danish, and Swedish nations established colonies in the New World. Centuries of competitive European expansion contributed to the formation of modern Latin America.

The European states used ship-building and navigational technology for exploration, and they employed military technology for domination and acquisition of territory. The elements of Western expansion in Latin America were the missionaries, settlers, and adventurers, the latter of which was reemphasized in new forms (filibusterers and economic adventurers) in the nineteenth century in the greed unleashed by the philosophy of liberalism and material progress. Western expansion (based on written records and maps and the transatlantic ties to settlers and colonists) attempted to alter empty or lightly settled regions or regions occupied by peoples without advanced technology and sociopolitical organizations. Europe's technology, economic power, and advanced political and social organization developed from the geographical closeness of its states and the internecine and feudal wars fought to reestablish a centralized authority after the decline of the Roman Empire. The Renaissance enthusiasm for knowledge, new things, and new experiences of the mind also encouraged expansion. The European interaction with the indigenous peoples of Latin America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was very one-sided: Europe borrowed some crops, but little else. Spanish, British, French, and Portuguese ideas, diseases, technology, and power carried the day.

Spanish and Portuguese institutions, the world economy, and the pre-Columbian societies shaped the agrarian structures in modern Latin America. The first two are part of the imperial order. The Incas, Aztecs, and Mayas had communal property (capulli for Aztecs and ayllu for Incas) but little private property. The Hispanics instituted private property and land grants to reward the soldiers and their leaders. The Spanish used encomiendas and the Portuguese sesmarias to distribute land and coerced labor for the production or extraction of wealth. Scholarship of the late twentieth century has indicated that institutions such as the encomiendas were less exploitative than originally thought. Indigenous groups, for example, entered Mexico's encomiendas voluntarily. In subsequent centuries, foreigners continued to assume a right to the land and labor needed to amass wealth. The church lands were also private, but held in mano muerto (dead hand or inalienable), hence outside the marketplace. Thus church property became a target of laissez-faire liberals and the ambitious nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.

Missionaries were important in the dissemination of European imperial rule because they penetrated the backlands and rain forests that were without the gold or silver, which attracted adventurers in the colonial period.

Except for the United States and Canada, the New World nations quickly became mixed racial and ethnic societies—mulattoes, Mestizos, and Zambos. Anthropologist Marvin Harris has argued that the various racial and cultural components in Latin America were "in large measure the consequence of the attempt to harness the aboriginal population on behalf of European profit-making enterprises." Admittedly the Repartimiento was the cheapest form of labor in the New World because it required no capital investment as slavery did. Still, if one adds land and resources to the harnessing of New World factors for European profit, the thought is more accurate.


The age of exploration and discovery (fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) and of imperialism (nineteenth and twentieth centuries) completed the bonding of the world into one economic system. The "new imperialism" of the 1870–1931 period was more emotional and nationalistic and also tied closely to industry and cultural consciousness. Nationalism, liberalism, and the industrial revolution influenced and shaped European and U.S. imperialism in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The imperialism and nationalism of the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries left much of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East with political boundaries and populations that suited the objectives of European imperial divisions of authority and economic power rather than local and indigenous factors of language, kinship, culture, or geography.

The imperial rivalry occurred within the world system which integrated all political units that controlled land, labor, capital, and distribution into a world economy. The Old World came to the New World quite consistently, although once the ties were made and the nature of the European and U.S. offerings became clear and evident, the indigenous peoples and the ethnically mixed authorities and businessmen of the New World states often solicited aid or programs. Desmond C. M. Platt argues that only after 1860 did U.S. and European economic ties with Latin America grow important and industrial markets more focused, drawing upon non-European labor and land (for raw materials and food) to foster material progress.

The shock waves of the world economic crisis of 1873–1898 persuaded political, business, and military leaders in metropole nations to expand through formal colonialism and informal imperialism in the years between 1870 and 1929. Around 1910, various European thinkers (Vladimir I. Lenin, John Hobson, and Joseph Schumpeter) advanced theories to explain the European expansion of the late nineteenth century. The time period strongly influenced these thoughtful and provocative explanations, which are linked to the question of power and to the economic, social, and strategic consequences of the liberal and Social Darwinian competition of industrial states. This focus upon the economic and strategic aspects of imperialism, however, overlooks an unusually enduring quality of imperialism: It restricted the sovereignty of the subject peoples. While European thinkers and politicians debated the merits of Marxist-Leninist and leftist critiques of European expansion, inhabitants of Latin America were more likely to debate the merits of pursuing European liberalism (most often in a positivist form) or condemning such a course through appeals to cultural nationalism (rooted in either Hispanic or indigenous cultures) or some variation of socialism.

U.S. efforts to plant and nurture the idea of a Western hemisphere became intense in the 1880s, but followed a vacillating course thereafter. U.S. officials cited a special relationship or shared Pan-Americanism, but they have continually encountered significant resistance among parts of all classes of Latin America. The special relationship was less cultural and emotional than fixed to a need for raw materials, markets for production, and investment opportunities. U.S. investment in Latin America rose dramatically from $308 million in 1897 to almost $5.5 billion in 1929. Trade rose almost as spectacularly from about $63 million in the late 1870s to $986 million in 1929. This era saw the rise of the hispanismo movement (Spanish efforts to rekindle cultural ties and then economic bonds with Latin America) and anti-Americanism, perhaps best evident in the APRa (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana movement of Peru to redeem "Indo-America" and to resist "Yankee imperialism").

By the early twentieth century much of the world had become colonies of metropole states, and multinational corporations became important actors in local politics. Metropole firms frequently controlled the production and distribution systems (often in enclaves) that drove the political economies in the periphery (those societies lacking most factors of production or unable to control them). Large transnational firms dominated the shipping, transoceanic telegraph cables, maritime services, and marketing operations that serviced Latin America. Other international organizations (dealing in labor, health, legal, cultural, and other matters) developed the capacity to interact with the gigantic firms at the level of the world economy. Through these large transnational institutions, metropole states dominated the political, judicial, social, cultural, labor, and professional organizations of the periphery. Yet eventually Latin American countries began to regulate foreign companies and side with foreign workers, limiting the power of international businesses. Moreover, countries seeking greater autonomy, like Mexico, became adept at playing imperial powers off one another.


Social imperialism and dependency theory are useful tools for analyzing the international history of Latin America. Social imperialism (defined as metropole policies that ameliorated domestic problems such as labor dissatisfaction, social disorder, and unemployment by transferring them abroad to peripheral states) sheds light on the impulses operating within many metropoles, and dependency theory (which focuses on political sovereignty and economic and social autonomy) illuminates the consequences of metropole intrusions in the periphery.

The historians Bernard Semmel, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Thomas McCormick have described social imperialism as a policy through which the metropole hoped to ameliorate domestic social woes and preserve its well-being and security through exploitation of opportunities in the periphery. McCormick has described policies that aimed "to export the social problem" and "to export the unemployment." Policy makers commonly discussed the impact of their foreign relations on their own domestic economy, but they rarely examined the consequences of their policies upon the host peripheral and semiperipheral states.

Social imperialism frequently brought dependent status to the societies on the periphery. Fernando H. Cardoso, Enzo Faletto, André Gunder Frank, and Samir Amin have described dependencia well. They have pointed out that metropole development in the competitive world economy required the underdevelopment of the periphery: if the periphery ever became developed, the option to exploit and extract accumulation would dissipate. Dependency theory focuses on the international structure as a means to restrict weaker participants rather than as a system to distribute bilateral justice in the metropole-periphery relationship.

The world economy, of course, is not a static structure, but a dynamic, changing system. Since ancient times, some producers and distributors have recognized that the exchange of commodities over large distances generates a large accumulation of value. The variety of products received from distant interchange by raising popular expectations, redefining the notion of well-being, and expanding the possibilities for accumulation became the motor for economic growth. As some European states applied technology to mass-produce goods and to develop new products, their need for raw materials and food expanded. Pressure grew to incorporate more areas into Europe's accumulation system—its production and distribution network. The European and North American statesmen, entrepreneurs, and military leaders contemplated the narrow land strip at the Central American isthmus as a key spot in a distribution system encompassing the whole world. This interest in world trade routes explains much of the urgency, intensity, and determination shown by metropole and Latin American geopoliticians, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the nineteenth century, informal means did not entirely replace formal imperial control in Latin America. Even after the formal Spanish (ca. 1820s) and Portuguese (1822) rule ended, the European states and the United States pursued political and economic authority in the New World, using formal colonialism or acquisition upon occasion. The British control of the Falkland Islands (1833); the Spanish in Santo Domingo (1862) and the Chincha Islands (1864–1866); the British in the Bay Islands, Belize, and the Mosquito Coast (ca. 1860s); the French in Mexico (1861–1867); and the United States in Puerto Rico (1898), the Virgin Islands (1917), Guantánamo Bay (1898), and the Panama Canal zone (1903–1999) are some examples of formal imperial authority, in an age when power was more commonly exercised through informal means.

By the late nineteenth century, the leaders in the metropoles needed to implement policies of social imperialism and simultaneously to mediate the internal discord arising from the bitter domestic competition during the crisis of comparatively unrestricted laissez-faire industrial capitalism. The mediating order they created was organized (or corporate) capitalism, which developed into a varied body of economic, political, social, and cultural organizations (as well as ideas and common wisdom), many of which formed symbiotic relations to government regulatory agencies (often at the wish of the giant entrepreneurs and financiers). Organized capitalism sought to preserve the image and the rhetoric of a laissez-faire system in order to justify privatization of profit and at the same time institutionalize cartel, oligopolistic, monopolistic, or holding-company arrangements that initially joined government and leaders of the economic sectors, but soon attempted to incorporate leaders of labor and social and cultural movements into cooperative situations.

Abroad, the United States and other metropoles implemented social imperialism through a variety of forms, but the most common forms were multinational corporations, nonbusiness transnational organizations, governmental or quasi-governmental agencies, and private social and cultural bodies. The metropoles provided social overhead capital abroad in the form of diplomatic and consular services, military forces to maintain order, special commissions, experts, subsidies, and tariff and tax advantages, all of which were indirect aid to corporations. These actions could be obscured abroad, and, according to some scholars, the greatly reduced standards of living and lower expectations in the periphery allowed organized capitalism to pursue policies there with smaller sums of money. The corporations and cartels struggled and competed to acquire use of the factors of production in the periphery which would ameliorate their own domestic problems. Scholarship of the late twentieth century, however, has shown a more complicated picture, including the limitations of corporate power. For instance, the Argentine government often sided with Argentine labor unions against the British-owned railroad companies. Also, foreign companies, such as the oil industry in Mexico, paid much higher wages. The interest of foreign powers did not completely align with business goals. As a case in point, the U.S. government never backed the demands of U.S. oil companies for invasion in the 1920s.

Imperialism flourished in an era of intense competition between metropole states. It meant that the Latin American nations—which had limited resource bases, smaller and less educated populations, and less development of capital, communications, and technology—bore some of the burden of metropole unemployment and social disorder in addition to their own problems. Not surprisingly, some of the internal disorder in the Latin American societies derived from their ties to the metropole states. Social imperialism relied upon the power of the informal authority of metropole financial, business, political, and military groups in alliance with compradors—usually members of the bourgeoisie or military on the periphery. The metropole states and the multinational corporations established comprador relations with individuals and groups in Latin America. The compradors had two chief functions: they facilitated the entrance of foreign corporations and political influence, and they managed the domestic order to favor foreign business enterprises.

Compradors normally collaborated with metropole wishes for stability and order to stifle the discontent generated by the loss of sovereignty and the protest of exploited workers. But political repression generated violent and nonviolent resistance, and the ensuing spectacle alienated supporters of democratic and human rights in the metropoles. Metropole officials—under siege because of the outcry against inhumane and undemocratic conduct by the compradors—sought rescue in the quick restoration of order, at times through military intervention, because disorder in the periphery was perceived as a threat to the home country. At times, however, domestic leaders sided with locals. Scholarship on Porfirian Mexico has shown that President Porfirio Díaz promoted domestic industries and labor rights.

Metropole entrepreneurs engaged corrupted laissez-faire ideology—evident in free-trade rhetoric covering government-supported multinational business ventures—to support their competition for land, labor, markets, and communication routes. This competition was clothed in strategic, political, social, and cultural language to reinforce the home countries' determination to assure maximum access to the capacity of Latin America and isthmian transit to generate wealth and security by linking the Atlantic and Pacific half-worlds.

The evidence for Western world extraction of value from Latin America changed in character over time, but it is overwhelming. There was capital in flight from Latin America's elite, extracted as profit or controlled by European-U.S.-Japanese investors when left in Latin America; labor was exploited but scarcely educated or trained; land and resources were exhausted, used, or controlled; communications (both domestic and international) were dominated; technology and research were stifled or located abroad. These forms of economic exploitation continue after five hundred years of European and North American contact with Latin America. In addition, the sovereignty of these states is still subject to foreign interference, as has been evident in U.S. activity in Guatemala (1954), Cuba (since 1961), the Dominican Republic (1964), Chile (1973–1974), Grenada (1983), Nicaragua (1981–1990), Panama (1991), and Haiti (1992–1994).

See alsoEncomienda; Monroe Doctrine; Repartimiento.


Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (1964).

Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America: Essays on Economic Dependence in Perspective (1970).

Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America, translated by Marjory Mattingly (1979).

James D. Cockcroft, André Gunder Frank, and Dale L. Johnson, Dependence and Underdevelopment: Latin America's Political Economy (1972).

Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, Para leer al pato donald: comunicación de masa y colonialismo (1972).

Desmond C. M. Platt, Latin America and British Trade, 1806–1914 (1972).

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (3 vols; 1974–1988).

Ciro F. S. Cardoso and Héctor Pérez Brignoli, Centro América y la economía occidental (1520–1930) (1977).

Fernand Braudel, Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, xve-xviiie siècle (3 vols.; 1979), translated as The Structures of Everyday Life, the Wheels of Commerce, and The Perspective of the World (1984).

Tony Smith, The Pattern of Imperialism: The United States, Great Britain, and the Late-Industrializing World Since 1815 (1981).

Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, eds., Latin America: Capitalist and Socialist Perspectives of Development and Underdevelopment (1986).

Peter Klarén and Thomas J. Bossert, eds., Promise of Development: Theories of Change in Latin America (1986).

E. Bradford Burns, Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History, 5th ed. (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Baskes, Jeremy. Indians, Merchants, and Markets: A Reinter-pretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Castro, Daniel. Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé De Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Daniels, Christine, and Michael V. Kennedy. Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500–1820. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

Joseph, G. M., Catherine LeGrand, and Ricardo Donato Salvatore. Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Mitchell, Nancy. The Danger of Dreams: German and American Imperialism in Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Petras, James F., and Víctor Hugo Porto Carrero, et al. América Latina: Imperialismo, recolonialización y resistencia. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Abya Yala, 2004.

Schoonover, Thomas David. Germany in Central America: Competitive Imperialism, 1821–1929. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

                                   Thomas Schoonover


views updated May 21 2018

Expansionism is endemic to an unfinished world of sovereign states in which some nations possess the power and will to challenge the global distribution of land, resources, or people. Centuries of mass migrations and state‐building created the modern state system without satisfying the needs and interests of all its members. The resulting instability in international life took its precise form from the existence of three worlds superimposed on one another. One consists of the economic universe of plains, valleys, rivers, harbors, and waterways—elements that determined the nature, quality, and performance of national economic activity. A second is the world of people, separated by ethnicity, language, and religion into unique cultures that seldom conform to national boundaries. The third comprises the world of nations, more artificial and malleable than the others, with boundaries created over time by natural lines of demarcation or by war.

Leaders of countries whose geographic, demographic, or political status fails to coincide with their ambition, perceived interests, and power can balance the two sets of factors in only one way: through the exertion of force. Highly dissatisfied nations may forego territorial adjustment through war by reason of prudence or morality. When states unleash force in quest of land or ethnic amalgamation, they succeed or fail according to the magnitude of the reaction. For the United States, its expansionist efforts largely preceded twentieth‐century precepts of self‐determination and peaceful change that rendered resorts to force immoral, and thus unacceptable. The United States, throughout its expansionist career, never faced an invincible coalition committed to blocking its expansion and defending the status quo.

American expansionism in the nineteenth century focused on bordering regions whose acquisition would enhance its security and broaden its economic base. Except for its conquest of Indian lands and its war with Mexico, the United States achieved its continental empire mainly through diplomacy. Europe's declining role in distant North America provided the United States sufficient leverage in its confrontations to assure highly beneficial boundary settlements. France, finding its claims to the vast Louisiana Territory relatively worthless, sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803 for $15 million. Spain revealed its weakening position in North America by ceding Florida and agreeing, in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, to a satisfactory boundary from Louisiana to the Pacific Coast. Britain defined its Canadian boundary with the United States in its acceptance of the 49th parallel from the Great Lakes to the Rockies in 1818; the Maine boundary settlement in 1842; and, in 1846, the line of 49 between the Rockies and the continental shore, then continuing on to the Pacific through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. California and the Southwest were acquired in 1848, in the war with Mexico. Alaska, no longer desired by Russia, was, like Louisiana, largely a windfall.

Expansionists in the 1840s proclaimed the doctrine of “manifest destiny” to rationalize American expansion as the mere fulfillment of the country's destiny. The concept of destiny, in discounting the role of force in the country's expansion, rested on the presumed superiority and appeal of American institutions. Notions of destiny might assuage the doubts of those who abhorred force, but expansion itself required more than convictions of political and cultural superiority. Manifest destiny neglected totally questions of power or diplomacy. It embodied no need to define ends. The hand of destiny, in promoting the extension of freedom, culture, and institutions, recognized no bounds. Quite typically, journalist John L. O'sullivan, who is credited with coining the phrase, observed in the New York Morning News on 27 December 1845 that it had become “our manifest destiny to occupy and to possess the whole Continent which Providence has given us…”

American expansion across the continent rested not on notions of destiny but on clearly conceived national policies, based on power and diplomacy, attached to specific territorial objectives. In the 1840s, the Polk administration pursued Texas's claims to the Rio Grande and businesses' desire for seaports on the Pacific Ocean, objectives achieved through the Mexican War. In Oregon, the U.S. goal was the magnificent harbor of Puget Sound, with access to the Pacific through Juan de Fuca Strait. The American demand for a settlement along the 49th parallel assured access to the desired waterways. U.S. purposes in California were no less precise than those in Oregon: the harbors of San Francisco and San Diego. These objectives Polk embodied in his war aims and achieved in the Treaty of Guadalupe‐Hidalgo (1848).

American expansionism entered the vast world of the Pacific in the late nineteenth century. The region seemed to offer limitless opportunities for the expansion of Christianity and civil liberty, and also for the acquisition of new markets to complement the impressive growth of American industrial and agricultural production after the American Civil War. What rendered the Pacific region especially inviting was the presumption that its civilizations could not resist the power, technology, and organizational skills of the Western world. Unlike other imperial powers, the United States did not create its Pacific empire by conquering previously independent peoples. Instead, it exploited opportunities for economic and territorial expansion already created by internal instabilities and weaknesses in regions regarded as strategically and economically important. Or it overthrew Spanish colonialism. After 1860, the application of American will in the Far East appeared so effortless that it ultimately led to expanded objectives, illusions of omnipotence, and wars exorbitantly expensive.

America's expansion in the Pacific advanced in spurts. By the early 1890s, it had touched China, Japan, Midway, Hawaii, Korea, and Samoa. In February 1893, the Harrison administration negotiated an annexation treaty with Hawaiian commissioners, only to have the incoming Cleveland administration reject it and condemn the previous administration's involvement in Samoa as well. The anti‐imperialists demonstrated their dominance by defeating a second Hawaiian annexation treaty in 1897. It required the Spanish‐American War, in April 1898, to break the power of anti‐imperialism and project the United States onto the world stage.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, fought ostensibly to free Cuba from Spain, Commodore George Dewey's Pacific Squadron destroyed the Spanish Fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish Philippines. This sudden display of naval power in the remote Pacific, and the possibilities it opened for empire‐building, were not lost on a group of well‐placed expansionists in Washington. During June 1898, Congress annexed Hawaii by joint resolution against little opposition. Meanwhile, President William McKinley dispatched an army to take control of Manila. On 13 August, Spanish officials surrendered the city to American forces. The decision to destroy Spanish power in the Philippines closed every easy avenue of escape. Having liberated the islands, the United States had either to restore them to Spain, free them, transfer them to another power, or retain them. Expansionists that summer clamored for their retention. On 16 September, McKinley instructed his peace commission that U.S. forces, with no thought of acquisition, had brought duties and obligations to the Filipinos that the country could not ignore. During December, the peace commission in Paris signed a treaty that conveyed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States in exchange for $20 million. The Senate, in February 1899, approved the treaty by a vote of 57 to 27, one more than the necessary two‐thirds. Philippine annexation set off a bitter, costly war with Emilio Aguinaldo's Filipino insurgents for possession of the islands. The American antiguerrilla campaign soon degenerated into a no‐quarter struggle of burned villages and the deaths of innocent men, women, and children. At the end, the acquisition of the Philippines demanded a heavy price.

Still, the illusion of easy success received an even more powerful demonstration in the U.S. effort to save China from dismemberment by Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Acceding to the American “open door” notes of 1899 and 1900, those countries accepted, in principle, China's economic, political, and administrative integrity. In the euphoria of “saving” China, the United States accepted a pervading unilateral commitment to China's independence and political integrity against Russia and Japan, whose interests in China were far greater than those of the United States. With its recent territorial accessions, the United States entered the twentieth century as the world's leading satiated power, with objectives—in China and elsewhere—anchored to the territorial status quo, but facing powers whose expansionist interests demanded further changes in the world's treaty structure, even at the price of war. For the United States, the coming century would hardly be peaceful, if no longer territorially expansionist.
[See also Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Philippine War; Philippines, Liberation of the; Philippines, U.S. Military Involvement in the.]


Albert K. Weinberg , Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History, 1935.
Ernest R. May , Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power, 1961.
Frederick Merk , Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation, 1963.
H. Wayne Morgan , America's Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion, 1965.
Norman A. Graebner , Manifest Destiny, 1968.
David L. Anderson , Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861–1898, 1985.
Thomas R. Hietala , Manifest Design, 1985.

Norman A. Graebner


views updated May 23 2018


Imperialism is the extension by a government of power or authority over areas outside the controlling nation. It results in the imposition of one nation's ways on another, creating an unequal relationship.

The imperialist extension of power is usually achieved through expansionism—acquiring or seizing territory. In the nineteenth century, the United States was intent on expanding its territory and economic influence. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny held that America was destined to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The United States's expansionist goals were achieved through acquisitions such as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the Texas annexation of 1845; the Mexican cession that resulted from the Mexican-American War (1846–48) and gave the United States California , Nevada , Utah , and parts of Texas, Colorado , Arizona , New Mexico , and Wyoming ; and the annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

Throughout history, expansionist and imperialist aims have often overlapped. Both involve a sense of mission and national identity. A nation's confidence that it is superior to others can contribute to imperialist goals. For example, as white American settlers moved across the continent during the era of westward expansion , they believed they had the right to take land away from Native Americans and to force their ways on the native populations.

Imperialism differs from expansionism in that it denies the rights of citizenship to the people of the lands that have been imposed upon. In many instances, an imperialist country exploits native populations for cheap labor, thereby increasing its own wealth and power. A country trying to expand its land holdings is not necessarily interested in domination or exploitation.


As America continued to expand in the belief that the greatness of a nation depended on its size and power, many Americans grew uncomfortable with the idea. They believed expansionism was too costly, and they objected to bringing nonwhite populations into the country. In 1899, a group of anti-imperialists formed the Anti-Imperialist League in direct response to the Philippine-American War (1899–1902), which occurred following the Spanish-American War (1898). As a result of that war, the United States had won control of the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Also known as the Philippine Insurrection, the conflict was one of the bloodiest wars of the era. Filipinos were not willing to accept the United States as their landlord or their boss, and anti-Imperialists agreed with them.

The league was established in Boston, Massachusetts , but it soon had a national membership of more than thirty thousand. Its members tended to hold liberal, progressive political views. Among them were writer Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), also known as Mark Twain, and millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919).

The U.S. government threatened to imprison antiwar activists, including league members, in 1900. By the time the insurrection ended in 1902, more than four thousand U.S. troops had lost their lives and more than two hundred thousand Filipino civilians (some historians estimate the figure as a half-million or more) had died as a result of violence or disease. The league was unsuccessful at preventing U.S. colonial rule over the Philippines, which continued for the next thirty years. The league disbanded in 1921, but the efforts of this early peace movement raised awareness of the uglier side of imperialism.

Caribbean and Latin America

After 1900, America turned its focus to the Caribbean and Central America. The Panama Canal , a manmade waterway designed as a passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Central America, opened for business on August 15, 1914. The United States had total control of the ten-mile waterway, which became a major military asset and helped America become the dominant power in Central America. By World War I (1914–18), Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua were protectorates (nations in formal or informal agreement with the United States to accept military and political protection from them in exchange for specific obligations). Puerto Rico was a colony (a territory under immediate and total control of a more powerful nation).

The United States's participation in World War I led to a reluctance regarding overseas commitments. The U.S. government withdrew its troops from Caribbean and Central America nations, relaxing its control in the region. Yet in economic terms, the U.S. government continued to push American exports and foreign loans, which some historians labeled “open door imperialism.”

World War II and the Cold War

The Great Depression (1929–41) refocused American attention on domestic concerns. Then, with the advent of World War II (1939–45), global matters again took center stage. The United States, together with its allies , Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, China, and others, defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan. The cost was immense, and only the Soviet Union and the United States emerged with enhanced power.

These two superpowers entered into an era known as the Cold War (1945–91), during which they engaged in an intense political and economic rivalry. The United States began to wield its influence to a degree greater than ever before. It supported anticommunist regimes in Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (1961), and as a prevention tactic, intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1965. Throughout the Vietnam War (1954–75), which was an effort to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving communist control in the region, Southeast Asia relied heavily on the United States for military aid. The United States became involved in other initiatives in the Middle East and Africa. In politics and in the media, debates intensified as to whether the United States had become a global imperialist.

The global reach of the United States

In the second half of the twentieth century, the cultures of many nations around the world began to emulate American lifestyles, fashions, foods, and trends. American movies and television programs were enormously popular overseas, and foreign students flocked to American colleges and universities. By the twenty-first century, “Americanness” saturated the world. Some historians called this phenomenon cultural imperialism.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, bringing the Cold War to an end in 1991, America remained the lone superpower. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the United States on several occasions deployed its forces overseas. It sent troops to Panama (1989) to protect the neutrality of the Panama Canal and depose the military leader, who had ties to drug trafficking. It sent troops to Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999), primarily for humanitarian reasons. The Gulf War of 1991, following Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's (1937–2006) invasion of Kuwait, involved sending more than five hundred thousand troops to Iraq in an effort to protect the world's oil supply. And in 2003, the United States led coalition forces into war in Iraq; the U.S. government's primary stated reasons for the Iraq invasion were to bring democracy to the ailing nation and to end the threat of weapons of mass destruction believed to have been developed and stored there, but which were not found. The war was a subject of intense political debate and controversy. For instance, a 2007 poll conducted in Iraq for several American and European media companies indicated that 50 percent of Iraqis felt things in their homeland before the U.S. invasion had been better, while 12 percent felt they had not changed. As of 2008, U.S. troops remain in Iraq.


views updated May 29 2018


The close of the nineteenth century witnessed the end of the United States' wars with Native Americans in the western regions of the continent. Along with this military triumph came the close of the American frontier. For many, these two developments signaled the dawning of a new age in the American experience. For others, it foretold a continuation of the tragic flaws in American politics and culture. The repercussions of the Spanish-American War helped to crystallize the issues regarding American imperialism in a new century.

causes and debates over imperialism

For many turn-of-the-century politicians and business leaders such as Albert Beveridge and William McKinley, William Rockefeller and Russell Sage, the United States needed to expand its production of export goods because domestic consumers no longer could absorb the output of American industries. The saturation of the domestic economy resulted in disastrous, cyclical depressions and financial panics. The response of workers was to unionize, strike, picket, and otherwise clamor for economic reforms that would protect them from the rapacious actions of corporations, banks, and railroads. Although most labor unions opposed the build up to war during the mid-1890s, some workers supported the notion of imperialism because of the promise of greater job security and higher wages by expanding foreign markets. By the time the Spanish-American War took place in 1898, most workers supported it. Consequently, many argued for American imperialism based on the notion that expansion would result in greater business profits, enhanced job creation, and fewer social cleavages. Another point of contention was the perception of America's place in history.

Some writers in this period harkened to America's own experience of breaking away from Britain and believed that the United States should not impose the colonial yoke on anyone else. The philosopher William James was a noted anti-imperialist who castigated the saberrattling of the period as unprincipled. Others countered by asserting that the "Founding Fathers" had envisioned America as a "city on the hill," which would serve as a beacon of freedom and civilization to the rest of a benighted world. In this interpretation, often invoked by Theodore Roosevelt and political scientist John Burgess, American imperialism simply was another means by which Americans could teach the meaning of liberty and democracy to others. This view gained currency as European imperialists justified their brutal regimes as civilizing missions of one form or another. Indeed, European imperialism served as an incentive in a different way. Roosevelt and his Navy mentor, Alfred T. Mahan, argued that for the United States to remain a great nation, it had to control certain islands, waterways, and build an isthmian canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Pursuant to this line of reasoning, America could only ensure its strength and security through empire-building. Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," encouraged these sentiments. Although many Americans embraced the idea of the United States as a reluctant savior of the world's downtrodden, a vocal number were troubled by the manner in which the rhetoric of salvation differed from the reality of pacification, particularly of people of color. The American Anti-Imperialist League, led by men like Mark Twain, grew from the latter opinion and found powerful evidence to support its position in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.

united states intervention

The American military's refusal to allow the Cuban rebels to confer on Spain's surrender, the imposition of the Platt Amendment onto the burgeoning government of Cuba, and the destruction of the Filipino insurrection in the early 1900s all seemed to confirm the fears of many that U.S. imperialism meant an extension of the cloak of White Supremacy across the globe. The Platt Amendment (1901), which gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban affairs, stifled self-determination in Cuba. With specific regard to the insurrection in the Philippines following American occupation, Filipino noncombatants made up roughly 90 percent of the more than 200,000 casualties in a war which included the relocation or eradication of entire villages, the implementation of concentration camps and the indiscriminate killing of women and children. Torture, a sad fact of the conflict, was best represented by the "water cure." When using the water cure, U.S. soldiers and physicians forced large volumes of water—sometimes with salt added—into the mouths or noses of Filipinos until they cooperated with their interrogators.

racism and imperialism

While some were disturbed by the potential for brutality in American imperialism, others opposed it because of its implications for the national identity. These critics feared that American annexation of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines eventually would mean that people in each territory would claim citizenship rights in America. In a nation already violently subjugating its Black, Red, and Yellow populations, the idea of bringing more people of color into the fold was disturbing. Within this debate, African Americans publicly asserted that U.S. imperialism meant the extension of American racism across the seas. Indeed, this sentiment was reflected in the oft quoted, though truncated, prophesy by W. E. B. Du Bois: "[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea" (The Souls of Black Folk, p. 54.).

Indeed, Du Bois' legendary meditation, The Souls of Black Folk, captured, in many ways, the numerous factors that fueled the debate over the validity of the extension of American power beyond its borders: economic concerns regarding industrial expansion, jobs, and access to raw materials and foreign markets; ideological concerns pertaining to the notion of American exceptionalism; cultural concerns about race, the people who were certain to fall under the shadow of American might, and whether that shadow concealed a sword or a shield. Adding to this volatile mix was the cementing of European colonialism across Africa and Asia. By the outbreak of World War I, the United States' dealings with Mexico and other parts of Latin America convinced many that America had created an informal empire. Because of vocal opposition in many quarters, the first halting strides of American imperialism in the twentieth century were hotly contested and the competing discourses represented conflicting visions of what America should be.


Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993.

Ninkovich, Frank. The United States and Imperialism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Williams, William A. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1972.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492–Present New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

Zwick, Jim, ed. Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialism Writings on the Philippine-American War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

George White, Jr.

See also:Du Bois, W. E. B.; McKinley, William; Peace Movements, 1898–1945; Roosevelt, Theodore.

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