Tuesday, February 10, 2009

USH11: The Road to Empire

In 1890 the Bureau of the Census officially declared the frontier closed. Politicians and military officers (including future president, Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one") had already begun discussing how to expand the country. (Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was another one of the voices in this discussion. He said, "The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places [sic] of the earth. ... As one of the great nations of the world the United States must not fall out of the line of march.")

In February, 1898, the battleship Maine, a US vessel docked in the harbor of Havana, blew up. While it was never determined what led to the explosion, the explosion led to war with Spain. President William McKinley, two years in office, didn't seem to want the war, and the government of Spain didn't want the war, but the banks, and the steel and oil industries, and above all the newspapers, wanted the war. The war was fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. After Spain suffered defeats in Cuba and the Philippines, they sued for peace, and the US acquired the colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba soon gained independence, but on terms dictated by the US. Ironically, the Monroe Doctrine, which may have been originally written in opposition to colonialism, was here being used to justify the US taking on colonies.

(In fact, the US had already been interfering in the affairs of other nations. Howard Zinn points out that one document lists "103 interventions in the affairs of other countries between 1798 and 1895.")

However, the Philippines did not want to be an American colony, any more than they wanted to be a colony of Spain, and that led to the Philippine-American War which lasted from 1889 to 1902 (with a low-level ongoing resistance that lasted until 1913). It was by many accounts a very bloody, nasty, racist war. In the midst of all this this, Hawaii was annexed as a territory by a resolution of Congress (1898).

When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt took office. Roosevelt was a hero for his exploits in the Spanish-American war and, as mentioned earlier, an avowed expansionist. In 1903, Roosevelt became involved in separating Panama from Columbia, for the expressed purpose of constructing and controlling the Panama Canal. And in 1904, Roosevelt declared his own 'Corollary' to the Monroe Doctrine: that the US had the right to intervene in Central American and Caribbean nations, especially if they weren't able to pay international debts. This led to multiple interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic during the first third of the Twentieth Century.

Roosevelt did promote anti-trust legislation and other somewhat progressive policies in his administration under the term 'The Square Deal'. But his successor, William Howard Taft, was involved with tariffs, and, in spite of some progressive sentiments, was seen as a conservative. In the election of 1912, he was defeated by the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

While Wilson's first term in office was marked by anti-trust legislation, lowering of tariffs, and the creation of the Federal Reserve, it was overshadowed by the war in Europe, which started in 1914 and threatened to draw in the United States. Wilson was re-elected in 1916, partly on the strength of his slogan, "He kept us out of war". In spite of this, when the Germans began sinking vessels with submarines and attempted to draw Mexico into the war, Wilson called for war and Congress declared it in April 1917. The war wasn't popular. When enough men didn't volunteer for service, a draft was started, along with a propaganda office called the Committee on Public Information that sent out seventy-five thousand speakers to give 755,190 four minute speeches in more than five thousand cities and towns. Wilson supported the Espionage Act of 1917 which led to massive arrests; in addition, more than 330,000 men were classified as draft evaders.

When the war was over, Wilson pushed for a progressive post-war agenda, but most of it was dismissed by the British and French and, although he succeeded in getting a League of Nations started, Congress did not allow the US to become involved. (Meanwhile, while the war was going on, the US was continuing its policy of intervening in the affairs of Latin American countries, notably Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama.)

By the time the nineteen-twenties came around, the US was a world power.

Quote of the Day: "This national argument is usually interpreted as a battle between imperialists led by Roosevelt and Lodge and anti-imperialists led by William Jennings Bryan and Carl Schurz. It is far more accurate and illuminating, however, to view it as a three-cornered fight. The third group was a coalition of businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians who opposed traditional colonialism and advocated instead a policy of an open door through which America's preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world." - William Appleman Williams

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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