The decade of the 1890s marks a diplomatic watershed in American history. During that period the United States embarked upon a very assertive expansionist policy that led to the nation becoming an imperialist power by 1900. The reasons for this change from an essentially low-key, isolationist foreign policy stance to an aggressive involvement in world affairs involved fundamental changes in the American economy and the attitudes of the American people. The industrial revolution of the last quarter of the 19th century was the primary factor in the shifting foreign policy. As the nation became more industrialized it began to look overseas for new markets for its manufactured goods and for new sources of raw materials to feed the growing industrial system. To protect these foreign markets and raw materials the United States began to expand its power and influence overseas through the acquisition of trading centers, naval stations, and coaling ports. Indeed one of the major differences between the expansion of the 1890s and previous decades was that the nation did not see these new territories as potential states to add to the nation, but as spheres of influence in the aid of foreign trade.
Two other elements entered the expansionist/imperialist equation. One was the closing of the American frontier in1890. When the Census report of that year proclaimed that there was no more frontier it meant that the nation could no longer pursue its twin goals of territorial expansion and isolation from world affairs. One or the other would have to be abandoned since there was no more contiguous territory to annex. The expansionist impulse proved stronger than the isolationist one and the nation began acquire an overseas empire. A second factor was the desire to spread the Christian gospel abroad, which meant securing an opening for American missionaries overseas. “Militant” Christianity reinforced the mood of American expansionism. A classic example of the intertwining of economic and religious impulses was United States’ annexation of Hawaii. The first Americans to settle in Hawaii were Christian missionaries whose families remained and exerted a growing influence over the Hawaiian economy.
By 1890 American economic and religious interests in the island kingdom were a permanent feature of the society. When the McKinley tariff bill of 1890 sought to stimulate the American sugar beet industry by placing a duty on imported sugar and giving a two cent a pound bonus for domestically grown sugar, the American-owned sugar companies faced a serious economic problem. From the standpoint of the American sugar companies in Hawaii the answer to their economc problem was simple: have Hawaii annexed by the United States so that Hawaiian sugar was domestic, not foreign grown. The flaw in that solution was that the Hawaiian people had no desire to become American. This popular aversion to annexation was reflected in the refusal of the Hawaiian leader, Queen Liliuokalani, to request an American take-over. The sugar company executives, with the timely assistance of a contingent of American marines who marched through Honolulu to “protect American lives and property,” simply staged a political coup and asked for annexation.
After President Cleveland refused, President McKinley acquiesced in 1898. America’s desire to extend its influence beyond its borders was not limited to overt acts of annexation. In the case of a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, United States’ action took the form of a virtual diplomatic ultimatum to England, insisting that Britain send no troops to press its boundary claims. The United States would set up a boundary commission to arbitrate the dispute and determine the legitimate boundaries. After initially declining American “good offices,” Great Britain accepted after U.S. Secretary of State Olney asserted that the United States was “practically sovereign” in this hemisphere and threatened military action. This rather high-handed maneuver reflected growing U.S. “power of persuasion.” The most dramatic example of America’s increasingly imperialistic foreign policy was the Spanish-American War of 1898.
After having remained aloof from Cuba’s previous attempts to throw off Spanish rule, the United States adopted a more interventionist policy when another Cuban revolt erupted in the 1890s. The American people were sympathetic with the Cuban cause and their rallying cry became “Cuba Libra,” free Cuba. A sensationalist American press, led by New York City newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, played up Spanish “atrocities” against the Cubans and ran front page stories about the Cuban “struggle for freedom.” Hearst even sent a photographer to Cuba with instructions to send back pictures of Spanish atrocities. In addition to “yellow journalism,” anti-Spanish emotions were stirred up by the publication of a private letter written by the Spanish ambassador to the United States, de Lome, considered insulting to President McKinley. Another event fanning the flames of war fever was the sinking of the American battleship “Maine” in Havana.
Even though there was no proof of any Spanish involvement the rallying cry for pro-war forces became “Remember the Maine, and to hell with Spain.” Even though Spain, trying to avoid confontation with the United States, responded favorably to a diplomatic ultimatum from the State Department, McKinley yielded to popular pressure for war and delivered a war message. Congress, sensing America’s mood, declared war. Congress’ declaration of war was soon accompanied by the Teller Resolution promising that the United States would not annex Cuba as a result of American intervention in its behalf. When the brief, successful war ( “a splendid little war” in the words of our Secretary of State) was ended, however, the Platt Amendment, incorporated in an American-Cuban treaty, accorded the United States the right to intervene in Cuba to “preserve its independence and maintain law and order.” In effect this amendment gave the United States a quasi-protectorate over Cuba.
And while the war did not lead to U.S. acquisition of Cuba it did result in United States’ annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands (acquired from Spain). The Philippinos expressed their aversion to becoming an American territory by engaging in a guerilla war against the U.S. when annexation was proposed. Indeed the Philippine insurrection against the U.S. was more costly in terms of money and American lives lost than had been the Spanish-American war. Nor was everyone in the U.S. in favor of Philippine annexation. Anti-imperialists claimed that the Philippines might involve us in a war in the Far East, and that forced annexation violated the traditional American belief in “government by the consent of the governed.” American labor leaders joined in opposition to acquisition lest it lead to the introduction of cheap Philippine labor.
American racism also rallied against acquiring “yellow-skinned” America’s desire to extend its economic influence to the Far East through opening up trade with China led to yet another diplomatic confrontation. By 1900 China had succumbed to European imperialism in the form of spheres of influence each of the major European powers and Japan had established. Concerned that this would lead to those powers excluding the U.S. from the China trade the U.S. sent a round-robin diplomatic note to all of them asserting that it was the U.S. policy, and assumed it was theirs as well, to provide an “Open Door” for trade with China. This was followed by a second “Open Door” note affirming respect for the “territorial and administrative integrity” of China. Reluctantly most of the nations gave lukewarm assent.