[Fairly thoroughly edited, February 2010]

America Becomes an Empire

America in the 1890’s

I made the generalization last time that expansion and growth are the signs of a healthy, confident society, but that the United States tendency to expand its geographic boundaries has from time to time had negative aspects as well.  Both positive and negative aspects are evident in the 1865-1900 period.  Westward expansion certainly had both positives and negatives: growth in mining, ranching, and farming gave the United States a booming economy and the ability to support more people in a more affluent lifestyle than ever before known in history.  But American Westward expansion was accompanied by cruel and capricious treatment of the native population and by a rather long period of lawlessness and violence in the newly settled areas.

By the 1890’s, though, much that was negative had been left behind.  The Wounded Knee massacre brought the wars with the Native Americans to a rather inglorious end, but at least it was the end.  Also, the rule of law was replacing vigilantism and the law of the six-shooter in the West.

One might have thought U.S. expansion was at an end.  The United States occupied the better part of a vast continent: what more could one want?  But in the 1890’s, almost by accident, the United States became an empire.

Now before discussing U.S. imperialism, it’s important to understand what an empire is.  Essentially, an empire is a collection of different kinds of people with different ethnic backgrounds and different languages, and sometimes vastly different cultures, united by the fact that they are ruled by a common central authority. 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the European nations had become imperial powers. Britain and France in particularly had world-wide empires, empires that seemed necessary to the prosperity of rapidly industrializing countries.  Empires provided raw materials for industry, and guaranteed markets for industrial goods.  In addition, Europeans felt they had a “White Man’s Burden” to bring their superior ways of doing things to the rest of the world.

Unlike the European nations, the United States had been, up to this point, almost an anti-imperialist power—and we were certainly uncomfortable with European-style colonialism.

One example: Hawaii.

American missionaries and American businessmen had been interested in Hawaii for quite some time.  In 1893, some of the businessmen, unhappy with the policies of the Hawaiian queen Liliuokalani, overthrew the queen—with the connivance of American John Stevens, a U.S. State Department official.  These businessmen wanted the U.S. to annex Hawaii, but an investigating committee sent out by President Cleveland concluded this was unjustified.  We had wronged a “feeble but independent state.” We didn’t put Liliuokalani back in power, but we didn’t annex the territory either. Businessmen, led by Sanford B. Dole created an independent republic which lasted for four years (1894-1898).

Another example of our anti-imperialist attitudes was our handling of a dispute between Britain and Venezuela over the border with British Guiana (1895-1896).  The discovery of gold aggravated the tension, and Britain prepared to intervene militarily.  President Cleveland didn’t like this: we are going to arbitrate, he said, and if Britain doesn’t like it, we will fight.

For various reasons, Britain caved in—and this happy result made Cleveland a hero to the Venezuelans and to Latin Americans in general.  Later, when Cleveland died, flags in Latin America flew at half mast to honor an admired American president.

But while American politicians didn’t have imperialistic aims, American businessmen were making inroads into Latin American countries.  Minor Keith built railroads in Costa Rica.  To make a profit, he needed something to transport.  Ultimately, he engineered an agricultural shift so that the Costa Ricans would grow bananas for export: and United Fruit was born.  Daniel Guggenheim made a fortune in copper and silver in Mexico, and other U.S. businessmen played major roles in the economies of various countries.

There is a standard radical line that American political intervention follows at the dictates of big business interests, and this is sometimes true.  But, more often, the initial concern of Americans when they intervene is humanitarian. One example: the Spanish American War.

The Spanish had been having trouble in Cuba for quite some time.  They had had to deal with a decade long insurrection (1868-1878) caused by Spain’s slowness in dealing with slavery and moving towards self-rule for Cuba.  In 1895, Spain faced another rebellion, and, again, they had difficulty putting it down.  Finally, the sent General Valeriano Weller to deal with the rebellion.  Weller headed Cuband into concentration camps where food ran short and disease was widespread.  Weller the Butcher, Cubans began calling him—and some of them wanted the United States to intervene to bring this butchery to an end.

American newspapers, always looking for some new scandal to uncover and to stimulate sales, took up the Cuban cause.  William Randolf Hearst in particular  called for intervention in his papers.  Hearst sent Frederick Remington to draw pictures.  Remington reported that, while conditions were bad, they didn’t justify hostilities. “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war,” said Hearst.  Remington supplied the pictures: an American woman strip-searched by Spanish officials. One slight detail change, though. The American woman had been strip-searched by women: the illustration showed her strip-searched by men: very different in its impact (as Remington and Hearst both knew).

Still, there would have been no war had it not been for what most probably was an accident.  The U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana harbor, and 258 crewmen died.  Most think today it was just an accident, but the American papers portrayed this as the result of collision with a Spanish mine.  The Hearst papers in particular did their best to stir up trouble.  “Assistant Secretary Roosevelt convinced explosion not an accident.”  “Naval officer thinks Maine destroyed by a Spanish mine.”  $50,0000 reward for the detection of the perpetrator of this outrage.”

Soon the cry went up, “Remember the Maine,” and, for whatever reason, McKinley asked for a declaration of war.  

The war itself was an easy U.S. victory. Admiral Dewey attacked the Spanish fleet in the Philippines and captured or destroyed all the Spanish ships. Total U.S. casualties? Seven wounded sailors.

In Cuba itself, things also went America’s way, and American victory was secured with only a bit more difficulty.

A splendid little war, some called it.  America had only 379 total combat deaths (though disease took many more—there were 5,462 total deaths) and cost only $250,000,000.  And we had gained…well, what?  What were we to do now that Spain was forced to abandon its territories.

At the beginning of the war, McKinley had said that annexation of territory would be criminal aggression.  The Teller Amendment pledged us to leaving Cuba in the hands of the Cubans.

But there were problems. If America simply withdrew, there would likely by chaos and a humanitarian disaster. Making matters worse, predatory European nations (particularly Germany) were bound to gobble up the former Spanish possessions if they could.

So what were we to do?  What do we do in the Philippines, for instance?  The Filipinos had fought alongside the Americans against the Spanish, thinking we were aiding them in winning independence.  When Americans didn’t immediately go home, they turned on the Americans and launched an insurrection against the American occupying force.  What to do?  Well, McKinley prayed—and concluded that it was our Christian duty to take the Philippines, Christianize and civilize the population.

“There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and to uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them as our fellow men for whom Christ died.”

We ended up fighting Filipino insurgents for four years, losing ten times as many men as we had in the war with Spain itself!  Mark Twain was a bitter critic, and his “pen warmed up in hell” was never more full of vitriol than when he was complaining about American hypocrisy in the Philippines.

But by 1902, the insurrection had been put down, and America did make some positive changes for its new colony, improving transportation, sanitation, education, etc.  We ended up staying in the Philippines until the 1940’s!

Likewise in Puerto Rico (another territory gained from Spain) America stayed for quite some time—and, in this case, we’re still there!  Many of the same positives: improved education, sanitation, transportation etc.  But also some uncertainty. Should Puerto Rico be independent?  Should it be the 51st state?  Should it remain a colony?  The question still hasn’t been definitively answered.

And then there’s Cuba itself.  Cuba remained under direct U.S. military governance until 1902, and, after American troops went home, we still maintained a measure of control.  Cuba was required to add the Platt Amendment to any constitution it adopted, an amendment limiting Cuba’s independent treaty making ability. The U.S. was granted a base in Cuba (Guantanamo), and no other nation was to be allowed to do this.  Further, the U.S. was guaranteed the right to intervene militarily should Cuba run into trouble.

Again, the United States did well in living up to its humanitarian aims, helping provide an excellent sanitation system, good schools, rebuilding Havana, and straightening out Cuban finances. 

But despite the positive side of U.S. intervention, U.S. meddling in places like Cuba was uncomfortable.  We had started as a “City on a Hill” an example for other nations. It was a very different thing to begin forcing other nations to imitate the U.S. model, no matter how good that model might be. And once the country started down that road…well, it was hard to see how there could be any turning back.  For better or for worse, the United States in the 20th century was going to have to play a larger and larger role in affairs well beyond its own borders whether people like Mark Twain approved or not.